Guide to Understanding and Treating Dog Anxiety

dog anxiety - signs and tips

If you believe your dog has anxiety issues, this guide examines what causes dog anxiety and what you, as a pet parent, can do to help your dog. Although our focus here is about general anxiety in dogs, we would be remiss not to mention separation anxiety in dogs. This common disorder affects all breeds, some more than others. Please see our Guide to Separation Anxiety in Dogs for an in-depth look at its causes and treatments.

Causes of Dog Anxiety

Outside of separation, there are several causes of anxiety; the two most common are fear and aging.

Dog anxiety driven by fear

According to a Finnish study reported in Nature magazine, 72.5% of 13,715 canine subjects in a study displayed anxiety-like behaviors. The study further noted that almost 30% of the dogs experienced general fearfulness, with loud noises being the catalyst for most. More specifically, 17% showed fear of other canines, 15% fear of strangers and 11% of new situations. Of course, some dogs react unusually to usual things — like vacuum cleaners, grass, and trips to the vet’s office. While most dogs’ reactions to these stimuli are often brief and minimal, these triggers could cause a significant long-lasting fear in anxious dogs.

Fear caused by aging

Unfortunately, as dogs age, fears may increase. This occurrence in senior dogs can be related to cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Like the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s in humans, dogs with CDS suffer from a decline in memory, perception, learning, and awareness.

Sudden anxiety in dogs

Sometimes, dogs exhibit anxiety for no apparent reason. If you’ve ruled out aging and medical conditions as causes, it could be that something happened that you just didn’t see. The section on dog anxiety treatments below can help you densitize and redirect your dog’s sudden anxiety.

Dog Anxiety Symptoms

How to tell if your dog suffers from anxiety? Here’s a list of symptoms to watch for:

  • Aggression
  • Compulsive/repetitive behaviors
  • Depression
  • Destructive behavior
  • Drooling
  • Excessive barking
  • Panting
  • Restlessness
  • Urinating or defecating in the house (even though the dog is housebroken)

While these symptoms may result from infrequent anxiety-causing events like fireworks and thunder, they can become a severe issues for your pet (and you).

Without question, the most troublesome of symptoms is aggression, which, depending on the circumstances, can be targeted directly or indirectly. Direct aggression occurs when a dog acts aggressively toward humans or other animals. In contrast, indirect aggression can happen when a human comes between the aggressive dog and the source of his aggression (usually another dog). Other aggressive behaviors like growling and barking can further worsen an already tense situation. Destructive behavior can also be dangerous to your pet as it is often through doors and windows; dogs try to escape a frightening experience.

Dog Anxiety Treatments

Addressing your dog’s anxiety can improve his overall well-being and your sanity. The cause of your pet’s stress will determine the best treatment(s) or combination.

Desensitization and counterconditioning

Training and counterconditioning can prove effective in reducing a dog’s anxiety. Desensitizing your dog to the anxiety-inducing stimulus requires you to slowly introduce your pet to the offending source of anxiety for short periods starting with a lower level of intensity. Over time with repeated exposure and plenty of healthy treats, you can increase the length of exposure time and level of intensity.

Counterconditioning changes your dog’s response to the irritating stimuli by associating the negative stimulus with something your dog loves, like treats, time with you, or playing a game.

Anti-anxiety medications

Speak with your vet if you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s behavior. If diagnosed with a serious anxiety disorder, your vet may prescribe occasional medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and antidepressants, including clomipramine and fluoxetine. To help your pet cope with anxiety-producing events such as car rides, fireworks, and thunderstorms, your veterinarian might prescribe a medication like a benzodiazepine along with an antidepressant.

The drug selegiline (used in Europe for chronic anxiety in humans) may help senior dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome and reduce their level of stress.

Natural dog anxiety remedies

Some home remedies that work well for relaxing humans can also calm dog anxiety naturally.

Natural therapies that use aromatherapy and pheromones may help decrease your pet’s anxiety. Because some natural therapies work best with other medications, it is essential you consult with your vet to determine which products are best for your pet, including essential oils.

CBD oil

While humans use CBD oil for various ailments, including anxiety, there is not enough scientific evidence to support CBD oil’s effectiveness for anxious dogs. With that said, if you would like to try CBD oil to relieve your pet’s anxiety, we recommend you speak with your vet to determine whether CBD oil could be a good treatment option.

Anti-anxiety vests

Similar to CBD oil, the consensus on anxiety vests, the most notable Thundershirt, or wraps is so-so. You have some pet parents swearing by them, while others say it did nothing to calm their pet during an anxiety-causing situation. The purpose of an anxiety vest is to apply enough compression around your dog (like a hug) as a calming aid.

Tips on Preventing Dog Anxiety

It’s impossible to determine what will and won’t trigger your pet. Worse yet, you can not foresee whether your dog will develop a more serious disorder. It is for these reasons that your best move in reducing anxiety in your dog is to practice the following tips:

  • Avoid anxiety-inducing situations. If you know your pet becomes uneasy around a specific stimulus, avoid taking your dog around it. If, for any reason, you can’t avoid the trigger, be sure to prepare with a harness, leash, and, if need be, a muzzle.
  • We can not say this enough: Daily exercise and mental stimulation are imperative to your dog’s health and overall wellbeing. Meeting your dog’s energy needs can help ensure that your dog will most likely not care what’s going on around him, including anxiety triggers because he’ll be too tuckered out.
  • Socializing your pet early on can help reduce future anxiety. Exposing your dog to a variety of new people, places, and experiences can help your pooch become a well-rounded adult dog that won’t exaggeratedly respond to triggers.
  • Obedience training establishes trust and builds a robust and healthy relationship between you and your pet. Socializing a well-trained dog is easier than trying to socialize one that lacks control. Bonus: early puppy training exposes your dog to other dogs, so it’s a win-win. He learns how to behave while making friends.
  • Reading your dog’s body language can help you turn a potentially anxiety-inducing situation into a good experience. Once you recognize your dog is becoming anxious, redirect his attention to you or something positive.

Practicing these tips and keeping calm may go a long way in reducing your pet’s anxiety and yours.

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