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Anxiety in Dogs: How To Spot Symptoms and Prevent Poor Behavior

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As pet parents, we do everything in our power to make sure our furry better-halves are as happy and healthy as possible. When your pooch suffers from anxiety, it can be incredibly sad and sometimes frustrating. You’re heartbroken that your pup is so distraught, but you’re also upset that he chewed up your entire living room.

Just because your dog has anxiety doesn’t mean you’re without options. There are many things you can do to ease the symptoms of anxiety and help to prevent future episodes. Here, we’ll show you the main causes of anxiety in dogs and offer tips on how to treat symptoms and what to do to prevent anxiety.

Causes of Dog Anxiety

Anxiety in dogs: A dog sits in an owner's suitcase

Like with anxiety in humans, there can be many contributing factors that lead to anxiety in dogs. Dogs may feel anxious if they’re used to having you around all the time and you suddenly have to leave. Dogs can become anxious when they have to go to doggy daycare or get boarded in an overnight kennel since these are unfamiliar surroundings. Other times, they may develop anxiety when they're scared. This is particularly common when it comes to loud noises or unfamiliar sounds. Here are some of the main causes of dog anxiety.

Fear

Anxiety is often an expression of fear. Many things may make dogs feel anxious, fearful, or nervous. Most commonly, dogs can develop anxiety from loud noises like thunder, people they haven’t met before, and objects they haven't seen like hats or masks. Dogs can also develop anxiety from associations with certain places, including the vet’s office. Some dogs are uncomfortable in situations like car rides while others may develop anxiety in unfamiliar environments such as places with stairs or tile floors when they're not used to these features.

Sometimes the fear is short-lived and dogs will naturally overcome their anxiety. This is especially common when fear is associated with new things. As the dog gets used to their new surroundings, their anxiety may decrease. 

In other cases, dogs may suffer from chronic anxiety to specific triggers. Thunder and loud noises like fireworks may cause your dog to panic. They may chew through doors, kennels, and everything in their path to get away from the incessant booms. 

Thunder and other loud noises or triggers that increase anxiety require preparation on the human’s part to ease the symptoms. In some cases, you’ll be able to remove the item that is causing the anxiety, like in the case of a vacuum cleaner. Other times, you’ll need to adjust your behavior — like taking your pup somewhere quiet during fireworks shows — to minimize symptoms.

Separation

Separation is one of the leading causes of anxiety in pets. Separation anxiety is a condition where a dog experiences duress when left alone. This type of anxiety can occur when the pup is left for a few hours or in severe cases for just a few minutes. This type of anxiety typically results in destructive behavior. The dog may act out by defecating in the house, chewing furniture, or trying to escape.

Separation anxiety is common in younger dogs who are used to their puppy parents being around all the time. When pet owners have to return to a normal work schedule or go on a work trip, the pup may panic and exhibit separation anxiety. While common in young pets, the condition can also occur in older dogs.

Age-Related Illness

Senior dogs may experience anxiety as they age and start to lose cognitive function. Just like elderly humans, these dogs may have increased difficulty getting around or getting comfortable. As they lose their eyesight and hearing, dogs may get nervous about going to the doggy door or moving about the house. They may get stuck in corners, causing an increase in anxiety due to a decrease in situational awareness. 

Dogs can also suffer from joint and mobility issues like hip dysplasia that can induce anxiety. Mobility issues can make a dog fearful because they may not be able to escape or leave a situation that makes them uncomfortable.

Symptoms of Dog Anxiety

Anxiety in dogs: a dog with a destroyed pillow

Signs of anxiety include aggressive behavior such as biting and barking. Some dogs may act out by pooping in the house and others may try to escape to get away from whatever is causing their anxiety. Here are some of the common symptoms of dog anxiety.

  • Excessive barking
  • Vocalization, including whining and crying 
  • Wheezing
  • Overly excited behavior
  • Destructive behavior
  • Escape behavior
  • Restlessness and pacing
  • Drooling, salivating, and panting
  • Urination and defecation in the house
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Aggression, including biting and snarling

Some symptoms are more prevalent in certain types of anxious dogs. Dogs who are afraid of thunder or loud noises are more likely to try to escape due to their fight or flight response. 

Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety may try to bite you to prevent you from leaving or may destroy things in your home to show that they're upset that you left. They may also poop or pee in the house even when they’re properly house-trained. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety may also try to escape from their crates or chew through doors to come find you. 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your dog is destroying things because he or she is bored or because of anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety often pace and demonstrate obsessive behaviors. If every time you leave your pup alone, you come back to damage, it’s probably due to anxiety. On the other hand, bored dogs tend to be less predictable. They may chew stuff up when you’re gone once and then not do it again for months. Bored dogs also tend to cause less damage than anxious dogs.

Symptoms of anxiety may be short-lived and occur every now and then or they may develop into a chronic condition. Consistent anxiety symptoms can increase stress levels for both the furry friend and their human. Fortunately, there are training techniques, lifestyle changes, and medications that can help your pup overcome anxiety.

How To Treat Anxiety in Dogs 

Anxiety in dogs: An owner trains her puppy

Finding the right treatment for anxiety in dogs comes down to identifying what is causing the reaction in the first place. Start by making an appointment with a licensed veterinarian (DVM). During the appointment, explain your dog’s symptoms and identify any triggers that may be causing the behavioral problems. 

The veterinarian can help you pinpoint what’s causing the problem and whether it’s a short-term issue or something that will need a longer treatment plan. A vet can also conduct a general physical examination and wellness check to ensure there aren’t underlying medical conditions causing the symptoms. Here are some ways you can help manage anxiety symptoms in your furry friend.

Petting

Showing your pup a little extra love and affection can help soothe symptoms of anxiety. If your dog seems stressed out, cuddle up on the couch and give him or her a few extra pets. When your dog encounters a trigger, give a few extra pets or treats, or lavish the pup with a few “good dogs.” This positive reinforcement helps your dog associate new experiences with rewards.

Training

You can use training techniques to slowly desensitize your dog to anxiety triggers. The two most common training techniques are known as counterconditioning and desensitization. The techniques are most effective when used together. In counterconditioning, you work with your pup to change their behavior from a negative response to a positive one. Desensitization is a process where you introduce your dog to something that triggers anxiety in a slow and controlled way so they get used to it.

The key here is to work slowly. If you quickly introduce a stimulus that stresses your dog out, you’ll do more harm than good. Try to identify what triggers your dog the least. Introduce these items first to help them realize that they don’t need to be afraid. Work your way up to scarier triggers slowly and patiently.

Develop ways to make scary triggers less intimidating. If your dog is afraid of loud noises like the vacuum, start the vacuum in a different room at first or cover it with a towel to make it quieter. As your dog gets used to the noise, you can slowly increase proximity or the noise level to desensitize your pet’s reaction.

Use rewards such as dog treats or food to help your pup associate the triggers with positive experiences. You can also reward your dog with a favorite toy or activity instead of using food. Repeat the process often and increase intensity only when the pup has fully acclimated to the trigger at the current distance. If your dog suffers from severe anxiety, it may be helpful to work with an animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, or professional dog trainer rather than taking on the training yourself.

Calming Products

While training is a long-term treatment for anxiety, giving your pup calming chews may help decrease symptoms in the short-term. These calming treats contain ingredients such as chamomile, hemp oil, valerian root, ginger root, and passionflower that may help naturally reduce stress

You can also try adding dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) to a diffuser. These pheromones are synthetic compounds intended to mimic the pheromones that mother dogs release when nursing their puppies. The idea is that the scent brings back memories of soothing moments, helping to decrease anxiety. Aside from diffusers, you can also find pheromone collars and sprays to decrease anxiety.

Dogs who suffer from anxiety due to age-related changes, may benefit from mobility chews. These chews contain ingredients such as Omegas, collagen, and hemp that may help decrease inflammation and support healthy joints. 

Medications

For dogs with severe anxiety disorders, anti-anxiety medications can help keep the condition in check. You’ll need a diagnosis and prescription from your vet to use these medications. For more minor to moderate anxiety, you can also use over-the-counter anxiety medications. Veterinarians prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and antidepressants  — including fluoxetine, benzodiazepine, and clomipramine — that can help ease the symptoms of anxiety.

For senior dogs, the veterinarian may prescribe medications that help treat cognitive decline. They can also give you prescription-strength medications to increase mobility and make it easier for your pet to move around — decreasing the anxiety associated with movement.

Tips for Prevention

Anxiety in dogs: A dog hides under a blanket

It can be hard to predict exactly what will trigger an anxious dog or nervous dog. However, most dog owners know their pets well and can spring into action at the first signs of anxiety. Pay attention to your pup’s body language. Their hair may stand up on the back of their neck or they may start with a rumbling growl before they exhibit excessive barking. Nervous tics such as scratching, drooling, and pacing can also be early signs of anxiety.

While treatment can help address symptoms when they arise, prevention can help you avoid the situation entirely. Here are some things you can do to prevent anxiety in your pup.

Socialize Them 

Dogs that are socialized at a young age tend to have a lower risk of anxiety. By introducing your puppy to a host of stimuli from different people and animals to a wide range of situations, they’ll be less likely to panic when things are different. Take your dog to the dog park, out on hiking trails, to grassy fields, and to areas with water features. The more they’re exposed to new things, the less likely they’ll be to overreact to something simple.

Reward new experiences with positive reinforcement. Give your dog treats and affection when they experience something new without reacting negatively. This helps your dog associate new encounters with something positive.

Focus on Obedience Training

Training helps to establish a trusting relationship between you and your dog. When your dog trusts you and feels safe under your watch, they’re less likely to be nervous or anxious in new situations. Obedience training also gets your dog used to following your lead. If they feel slightly nervous but see that you’re confident and in control, they're less likely to experience anxiety.

Offer Enough Stimulation

Dogs who don’t get enough activity or proper nutrition can become destructive — chewing up everything from your favorite loafers to your grandma’s hand-knitted throw. Make sure Spot gets plenty of exercise and stimulation. If you're leaving the house and your dog tends to get anxious, put any valuable items you don’t want chewed up in a safe place. 

Leave your dog with a puzzle toy like the KONG that can be stuffed with peanut butter or other treats. If your dog is focused on getting the treats, he or she won’t be as consumed by anxiety in your absence.

Avoid Triggers

Make changes to avoid triggers that make your dog anxious. If your pup doesn’t like stairs, take him to a beach that doesn’t involve walking down from the bluffs. If he or she is scared of other dogs, head out on a quiet trail rather than going to the dog park.

If your furry friend is afraid of thunderstorms, you can put a ThunderShirt on to help decrease anxiety. ThunderShirts offer comfort and protection by applying pressure to your dog’s body. This may help release happy endorphins — sort of like how a hug makes you feel warm and fuzzy. ThunderShirts are also useful when there are fireworks displays, like on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, which frequently trigger anxiety in dogs.

If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, you can try to leave him or her with a family member they know well. The best choice is to have someone the dog knows stay in your home. This enables your dog to remain in a familiar environment with someone they like, helping to decrease the risk of anxiety while you’re gone. Try to avoid leaving your dog at a kennel or somewhere unfamiliar.

Helping Your Pup Cope With Anxiety

A person holds a dog's face in his hands

Dog anxiety can be stressful for both the pup and the human. While the condition can result in serious behavioral problems, it can also be treated through training, conditioning, and prevention. 

Watch your dog’s behavior for signs of anxiety. Identify what may be triggering the stress and work to avoid triggers as much as possible. For minor anxiety, use counterconditioning and desensitization to decrease your dog’s reaction to the stimulus. Positive reinforcement techniques will help associate the scary item with a treat or a favorite toy.You can also use calming chews to soothe your pup. 

More severe cases of anxiety may need to be treated with medication or with the help of a veterinary or animal behaviorist. Keep Your dog stimulated and make sure they get enough exercise. With a combination of regular exercise, proper training, avoidance, and positive reinforcement, you can help ease the symptoms of your dog’s anxiety.