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Dogs are known for being our loving and social best friends. They perk up the minute they hear the front door unlock and immediately run to their owner and shower them with love. While dogs are generally affectionate, loyal, and energetic, they can also get fearful, anxious, and stressed.
Fear, anxiety, and stress are all classified as behavioral problems in dogs. Though they have similar connotations, their definitions vary:
- Fear is defined as a feeling that is triggered by the presence or vicinity of an object, person, or social circumstance. Context must be used to assess whether the fear or scared response is abnormal or improper. Fears are typically expressed as graded responses, with the severity of the response related to the stimulus' proximity.1
- Anxiety is the fear of impending danger or disaster, which can be accompanied by both behavioral and physical symptoms (vigilance and scanning, autonomic hyperactivity, increased motor activity and tension).1
- Stress can change behavioral, physiologic, and immunological responses, with varying consequences on health and behavior if it becomes a consistent problem. The hypothalamic-pituitary axis and levels of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and prolactin are all affected by stress. Stress in animals can lead to, dermatologic, respiratory, and gastrointestinal ailments, as well as behavioral issues such obsessive behaviors, exaggerated fear responses, and psychogenic polydipsia and polyphagia.2
Because “dog anxiety” is a more familiar phrase for most pet owners, we’ll be using that as a generic term throughout this post. Anxiety can be just as debilitating for dogs as it is for humans. Fortunately, there are many treatment options that can help your pooch live a better, happier life.
In this blog post, we’ll be discussing clinical signs of dog anxiety, causes of anxiety in dogs, treatment, and more.
- Clinical Signs Of Anxiety In Dogs
- Causes Of Anxiety In Dogs
- Diagnosis Of Anxiety In Dogs
- Treatment & Management Of Anxiety In Dogs
- Anxiety In Dogs: Frequently Asked Questions
Clinical Signs Of Anxiety In Dogs
Clinical signs of dog anxiety differ for every dog depending on the cause for and severity of their anxiety. To further complicate diagnosis, many symptoms of anxiety in dogs can be indicative of other health issues.
These are some of the most commonly observed signs of anxiety in dogs3:
- Increased vigilance: If your dog is generally friendly and social, a shift or worsening of aggressive behavior may indicate the presence of anxiety. A dog with anxiety may begin to act fearful when they’re with their owner, people they regularly interact with, and strangers.
- Increased scanning/attentiveness: Because anxiety is classified as a fear of impending danger, many animals, including humans, experience hyper-attentiveness when they are feeling anxious. If you notice your dog frequently scanning their surroundings or becoming extra attentive, it could be a sign of anxiety.
- Urinating or defecating in the house: Some dogs, especially young dogs, will urinate when excited. However, if your dog keeps urinating or defecating in the house, especially when you’re not home, something else may be at play. Anxiety may be the culprit, as some dogs experience a loss of bodily control when they’re anxious.
- Drooling: While drooling can be normal, drooling in excess is not. If you notice your dog drooling significantly more than usual, whether or not they’re in a potentially stressful situation, that could indicate a behavioral or medical issue. Excessive licking can also occur in an anxious dog.
- Panting: A dog will often pant when they’re hot or excited, and also after exercise; this behavior is natural and to be expected. However, if you see your dog pant while resting or when they are not hot, that means that something may be wrong.
- Destructive behavior: Destructive behavior is common for a dog dealing with anxiety. A dog with anxiety may chew on objects, door frames, and window sills. They also might scratch doors and destroy household objects. These behaviors could also cause self-harm and result in cracked teeth and chipped nails. If you do come home to a scratched-up doorway and bitten couch, try to not get angry at your pup. They’re not doing this on purpose—it’s a side effect of their untreated anxiety.
- Depression: Depression is another very common sign of anxiety in dogs. Depression can show in many different ways. Some dogs will lose their appetite and avoid their owners. Other dogs will stop showing interest in things they used to enjoy and will sleep a lot more than usual. If you see your dog exhibit any of these symptoms, they could be feeling depressed and anxious, and that means it’s time for you to intervene.
- Excessive barking: A dog with anxiety may bark an abnormal amount. While dogs will often bark when they’re excited or scared, a dog with anxiety will bark as a way to get their owner’s attention. Their barking may be intensified and last for long periods of time. A dog with separation anxiety may also bark when they’re left alone.
- Pacing/General Restlessness: A dog with anxiety may pace in a repeated fashion. Separation anxiety can cause a dog that’s left alone to pace around uncontrollably all day. But excessive pacing can also occur in a stressful situation, like going to the vet or hearing fireworks or a loud thunderstorm.
- Repetitive or compulsive behaviors: Compulsive behaviors in a dog can mean many different things. A dog who exhibits compulsive behaviors as a result of anxiety may frequently chase their tail, bite their skin, and frantically run. They will exhibit these symptoms in a repeated behavior, to the point where it may cause self-harm.
- Changes in sleep: When anxiety occurs for an extended period of time, your pet may display changes in their sleep-cycle, just like humans with anxiety do.
Keep in mind, not all of these symptoms need to be present for a diagnosis of canine anxiety. If you’ve noticed any of these clinical signs, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your vet.
Causes Of Anxiety In Dogs
There are various factors that could contribute to your dog’s anxiety, ranging from genetic factors to lack of appropriate socialization, traumatic events, or diseases in other body systems. In order to properly treat your dog’s anxiety, it’s helpful to understand the root cause of it.
These are the most common causes of anxiety in dogs:
- Separation: One of the most common causes of anxiety in dogs is being separated from their owners. When a dog becomes overly reliant on their owner, it can cause them to act out whenever they’re separated. Previous abandonment often causes separation anxiety. Separation anxiety can also occur when there’s a sudden change in schedule in the dog’s life. For example, if they’re used to being at home with their owner all day, and then all of a sudden the owner has to start going to work, that can lead to separation anxiety.
- Age: Certain age-related conditions can also trigger anxiety in older dogs and is usually due to Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). Symptoms of CDS are similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people, and can include memory loss, disorientation, and lack of awareness and perception. This disorder can often lead to anxiety and stress. CDS is more common in dogs aged 11 and up.
- Past trauma: Past trauma can also cause anxiety. Abandonment, abuse, and any traumatic event can also trigger anxiety, even years down the road.
- Medical issues: Various illnesses can cause or increase anxiety in dogs. Some of these illnesses include hypothyroidism, hearing loss, and changes in hormones. This is why it’s crucial to see a vet if you suspect your dog is suffering from anxiety, as it could be a symptom of a serious medical condition.
- Lack of puppy socialization: By nature, dogs are highly social creatures. Proper socialization is important during all stages of a dog’s life, but especially when they’re a puppy during the socialization period, which ends between 14 and 16 weeks of age.) Puppies that are separated from their mothers too early can also develop social anxiety. A lack of puppy socialization can make it difficult for them to interact with humans and other dogs later in life. Additionally, where a puppy comes from can also contribute to their development of fear and anxiety. Some studies indicate that puppies that come from pet stores are at an increased risk.4
Your dog’s anxiety might seem out of the blue, but it’s usually due to some sort of environmental change or stressful situation. However, certain dog breeds are more predisposed to anxiety.
Diagnosis Of Anxiety In Dogs
In order to effectively diagnose anxiety in a dog, they must be evaluated by a vet. Their behaviors, including their daily eating routine, urination and defecation habits, social interaction, physical exercise, and sleeping habits, should all be reported to your vet.
If your dog repeatedly exhibits one or more signs of anxiety, have them evaluated by your vet so they can be properly diagnosed. A vet will have a better understanding of the right course of treatment and if the anxiety is related to a disease or disorder of another part of the body.
Anxiety in dogs is common, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. In a recent study, 73% of dogs expressed anxiety-related behavior.5 These behaviors can have a huge impact on the dog’s quality of life, which is why it’s so important to find the right course of treatment for your pup as quickly as possible.
Treatment & Management Of Anxiety In Dogs
There are various treatment methods that can help ease your pup’s anxiety and stress. But in order to treat them, you first need to understand the cause and severity of their condition.
Dog anxiety treatment may involve a combination of strategies, like behavior modification, and medication. Treatment methods will vary depending on the root cause.
Some common dog anxiety treatment methods include:
- Environmental management: Creating an environment for your dog that is more conducive to their needs can be a powerful tool to help reduce their anxiety. There are many ways you can optimize your dog’s environment to help with their anxiety. Creating a “sanctuary space” for your dog within your home can allow them a safe space to retreat to when they are feeling stress. If your pet fears new places, avoid taking them to the coffee shop or restaurant where there is a lot of stimulus and activity. By avoiding and managing the triggers for your pet, we can decrease the amount of stress they feel on a day to day basis. Also, enhancing the environment with food puzzles and stimulating their brain through activities such as nosework and teaching new tricks can keep them focused on things other than their fears and anxieties.
- Behavior modification: To create lasting change in your dog, behavior modification can alter how they perceive the world around them and lessen their anxiety at its root. Behavior modification techniques include counterconditioning and desensitization. Please be aware that some commonly or improperly taught techniques can worsen the anxiety, so be sure to work with your veterinarian to create a behavior modification plan that is right for your dog.
- Pharmacologic therapy: An anxious brain can make it difficult to initiate change. Like humans, neurochemical imbalances in dogs can cause and perpetuate fear, anxiety, and stress. A combination of supplements, medications, and pheromone therapy can help to restore that balance and signal to the brain that they can feel safe. Dog anxiety medication can help your dog feel more relaxed and allow them to be more open to long-term behavior modification therapy.
Dog Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions
Having a dog with anxiety can start to take over your life. You can barely leave the house without worrying about what your dog is going to do, and if they’re going to harm themselves or wreak havoc in your home.
But remember: there is a treatment out there to ease your pup’s anxiousness. With the right course of treatment, you can improve your dog’s symptoms.
To help answer any more questions you have regarding dog anxiety, we’ve gathered up some of the most frequently asked questions regarding symptoms, causes, and treatment of anxiety in dogs:
How do you know if your dog has anxiety?
There are various signs that can indicate your dog is suffering from anxiety. Restlessness, excessive barking and panting, destructive behavior, aggression, and self-harm are some of the most common indicators. A dog who’s experiencing anxiety will start to exhibit these behaviors repeatedly, so make sure to keep a close eye on your dog if you sense they are developing anxiety.
How will anxiety meds affect my dog?
Medication can be a viable course of treatment for anxiety, if recommended by your vet. If your vet does prescribe medication, you’re probably wondering how it will impact your dog’s demeanor and physical health. Every pet responds to anxiety medication differently, but side effects may include:
- Increased appetite
- Drunken walking
- Heart rate irregularities
- Urinary changes
- Reduced muscle control
- Lowered blood pressure
To learn more about the side effects and potential benefits of pharmaceutical options, read our blog post on anxiety medications for dogs.
How should I confront or comfort my anxious dog?
Overall, you want to proceed with caution whenever attempting to calm down an anxious dog. Learning how to read your dog’s body language is a helpful way to learn how to approach (or not approach) your anxious dog.
Some examples of anxious body language may include6:
- Whale eye: When a dog shows you the whites of their eyes, this may be an indication that they are uncomfortable or anxious. In this case, it is usually best to leave them be.
- Lip-licking: Dogs, like humans, will lick their lips after a tasty meal, but they will also do so when they are nervous. It's sometimes difficult to notice the tongue flick since it happens so quickly.
When interacting with your nervous dog, it’s important to act as calmly and gently as possible. In the event that your dog finds it difficult to calm, consult your vet about possible treatment methods.
Talking to a licensed veterinarian is crucial if your dog shows signs of anxiety. Dutch.com is an online vet telehealth service; pet owners can virtually connect with licensed veterinarians who can prescribe their pets the medication they need. We bring the user to the vet all from the comfort of home, so your dog can be back to their social self as quickly as possible. Access the medication and treatment options your pooch needs to live a happy, healthy life.
- Landsberg, Gary M. “Glossary of Behavioral Terms - Behavior.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 26 Oct. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/behavioral-medicine-introduction/glossary-of-behavioral-terms?query=anxiety+fear+stress.
- Landsberg, Gary M. “Diagnosis of Behavioral Problems - Behavior.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 26 Oct. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/behavioral-medicine-introduction/diagnosis-of-behavioral-problems?query=anxiety+fear+stress.
- Overall, Karen. Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats - E-Book . Elsevier Health Sciences. Kindle Edition.
- McMillan, Franklin D. "Behavioral and psychological outcomes for dogs sold as puppies through pet stores and/or born in commercial breeding establishments: Current knowledge and putative causes." Journal of veterinary behavior 19 (2017): 14-26.
- “Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs”, Scientific Reports, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59837-z
- Stephanie Gibeault, MSc. “Understanding Dog Body Language: Decipher Dogs' Signs & Signals.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 27 Jan. 2020, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/advice/how-to-read-dog-body-language/.