By David F. Kramer
Anxiety is a fact of life—even for a dog. It’s not all chew toys, chasing your tail, walks, and waiting to be fed. Our dogs are just as susceptible to anxiety as we are. Not every Spot, Finn, or Harry deals with stress in the same way, and some simply go barking mad.
For every stressed dog, there’s plenty of medical and psychological help available through veterinarians, trainers, and canine mental health professionals. This slideshow will explore the signs and symptoms of canine anxiety, and how owners can help their dogs deal with it.
There are many symptoms of anxiety in dogs, and since quite a few of them are variations or extremes of normal canine behavior, diagnosis can be difficult. Such behaviors can all be considered normal reactions to short-term, active stressors such as an unexpected loud noise. However, when those behaviors start to become routine, they might indeed be symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
According to Dr. Meghan Herron, head of the behavioral medicine clinic at Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, there are some tell-tale symptoms. “Signs that a dog is anxious may include panting, pacing, whining or whimpering, avoidance of eye contact, fidgeting, attempts to move towards the exit, hiding, and trembling. Less obvious signs might include dilated pupils, subtly moving away from people who attempt to pet the dog, displacement behaviors such as yawning, lip licking, air sniffing, wet-dog shaking, and shutting down and avoiding interactions.”
A well-adjusted dog will find its home to be a safe and generally stress-free environment. Dogs, like many other animals, are prone to scan their environment for potential threats. If your dog does this excessively or seems to always be in a heightened state of alertness, anxiety might be the culprit. Behaviors that get in the way of living a normal life are cause for concern in dogs. An anxious dog might be unable to sit still or relax, or may have physical symptoms, such as excessive shedding and changes to eating and sleeping habits.
The causes of anxiety in dogs are varied, and can be related to physical illness as well as a dog’s mental state. Taking a look at a dog’s environment can offer a glimpse into what might be the cause. Clearly, actual physical and mental abuse and mistreatment are sure to lead to anxiety, but there are many other factors that might require some investigation.
According to Herron, dealing with pet anxiety is part and parcel with being a pet owner. “Generalized anxiety is not uncommon in dogs and often goes unrecognized or misdiagnosed. Many of these dogs have difficulty focusing, may seem slow to learn commands, and do poorly in group training classes, as they have trouble filtering out all of the various and potentially anxiety-providing stimuli.”
Like people, dogs are quite attuned to changes in their environment and even the simplest upsetting of this balance can cause stress. For example, moving into a new home is apt to distress a dog. The addition of strangers and new pets, or the removal of other people and pets, can also lead to anxiety. The same goes for new and unfamiliar pet carriers, feeding dishes, and even changes in your brand of dog food.
Herron suggests picking a schedule and sticking to it. “Creating a consistent daily routine, and sticking to a standard introduction plan when taking the dog to new places and meeting new people can all be helpful. Simply trying to expose these dogs to one new place after another will likely increase anxiety and make things worse. These dogs need a careful plan; environments which are known to be anxiety provoking should be avoided until the owners can get help from a professional.”
While the potential for anxiety in dogs is universal, as with people, some dogs are more prone to it than others. Breeds prone to anxiety run the gamut in size and disposition and include German and Australian shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Vizslas, Border Collies, and Shorthair Pointers, as well as smaller breeds like Cocker Spaniels, Bichon Frises, King Charles Spaniels, Greyhounds, Havanese, and many toy breeds.
Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania sees many different types of dogs for anxiety in his veterinary practice. But there are a few unifying factors, he says. “Any breed of dog can show anxiety but we tend to see it more in the smaller breeds, such as the Chihuahua, Miniature Pinscher, Jack Russell Terrier, and Shih-Tzu. It is also common to see it in dogs that have been through multiple homes and owners without consistent training and socialization."
Once diagnosed, the symptoms associated with anxiety in dogs can get in the way of treatment, said Herron. “They seem easily distracted and overly active sometimes. They then get mislabeled as ‘stubborn’ or ‘hyper’ or (even worse) ‘dominant’ because they won’t follow their owners’ commands in many contexts. It isn’t because they don’t know how or don’t want to, it is simply because they can’t.”
As social animals, few, if any, dogs actually prefer to be left alone. However, in the majority of situations, this is unavoidable. A dog might be alone while its family is away at work, school, or for simple social activities. Any dog owner knows that even when they leave for relatively short periods of time (minutes, even), upon their return their dog will respond as if they’ve been away for months. While this in itself is normal, the way your dog responds when you’re about to leave, or while you’re away, can be symptomatic of anxiety.
If your dog doesn’t urinate or defecate in the house or chew on inappropriate objects while you’re at home but does while you’re away, this could be caused by anxiety. In many cases, the source of this anxiety is pretty simple: boredom and loneliness.
“Depending on your pet's personality, you may find that they crave attention or activity, while others like quiet time,” says Denish. “For animals that dislike being left alone and appear bored, there are many things you can try to ease their anxiety. A few options to try include placing food or treats in a Kong, leaving safe [chew] bones around the house, playing the radio or television for their amusement, and giving them specific play-time to tire them out before or after the down time.”
A dog that’s been abandoned or has spent time in a shelter environment can be more likely to exhibit anxious behavior. Even when these dogs are adopted, they still carry these memories with them, and may always have a lingering thought that you might leave and never return.
“Separation anxiety and other forms of anxiety can occur for a multitude of reasons. With the ever-increasing amount of dogs and cats obtained through adoption and shelter networks, we are seeing even more cases of separation anxiety,” says Denish. “Animals that are constantly in transition regarding their schedule, training, and general welfare have a greater likelihood of emotional distress, causing them to act out in abnormal ways.”
While this is a state of mind that might, sadly, never be completely rectified, being the best, reliable dog parent you can be will go to great lengths in assuring your dog that he is indeed in his forever home.
All dogs experience tension and anxiety at times. It’s when these factors cause physical symptoms and self-destructive behaviors that dog owners need to really sit up and take notice. A distressed dog that obsessively licks itself can develop bald spots and open sores—although this can also be caused by allergies, skin disease, or endocrine imbalances, all of which are also valid cause for a vet visit. An anxious dog that refuses to eat, has ongoing diarrhea, or excessively vomits will eventually suffer from malnutrition and illness.
But just when are anxiety symptoms cause to visit a veterinarian? According to Denish, "An owner should seek veterinary advice with their pet's anxiety under three circumstances: when it has adversely affected the animal's quality of life, when it is impacting on the owner's happiness, and definitely before the behavior becomes habitual."
"Treatment options are usually multifactorial and based on the degree of anxiety and willingness of the owner to get involved,” says Denish. “Behavior modification is always the first and most important step. Redirecting bad behavior to a good behavior is always a smart move. Consistent and routine training by all members of the household is paramount in that step.”
Dog owners just need to be on the alert, says Denish. “Any behavior that is not normal for that animal can lead to future physical and mental issues. Signs of worsening anxiety in dogs can include destructive behavior in the house, self-mutilation, aggression or aggressive tendencies, and restless, pacing activity."
But sometimes a two-fold approach needs to be taken, according to Herron. “When behavior modification isn’t enough for known situational anxieties which cannot be avoided, such as storms, having visitors, going in the car, etc., a veterinarian can prescribe an immediate and short-acting anti-anxiety medication. If the anxiety is a part of a dog’s daily life, is inhibiting the dog from being able to accept new people and places, or if it is moderate to severe in a number of unavoidable contexts, then a daily anti-anxiety medication may be helpful.”
While you might have limited access to vet care due to where you live, you might not need to find a specialist to help your dog just because its problems are emotional instead of physical. “Veterinary behaviorists are considered the experts in psychotropic medications for dogs, but many general veterinarians are also willing and able to treat these patients,” says Herron.
As with pretty much anything these days, the internet is a perfect starting point. Below, you will find a list of websites to help you find a vet specialist, but you might also find aid by contacting your local ASPCA, animal welfare organization, or animal hospital.