As a pet parent, you do your best to make sure your canine family member is as happy and healthy as possible. But like humans, dogs can get anxious for a variety of reasons — and it's not uncommon.
In a scientific report published in March 2020, researchers revealed that nearly 70% of dogs demonstrate some degree of anxiety-type behavior. And just like many people treat their anxiety with medications, depending on the severity and persistence of the symptoms, dogs can also be treated with drugs.
As with humans, anxiety can negatively impact your dog's overall quality of life. At least one study found that anxious dogs could be more vulnerable to diseases and have a shortened lifespan since stress directly impacts the immune system. (It's yet another reason why using products that promote your dog's immunity is so essential.)
In this guide, we'll outline some of the most frequent causes and symptoms of anxiety in dogs so you know how to better observe your canine companion. We'll also provide a list of dog anxiety medications so you have a clearer idea of what's available when you talk to your veterinarian.
Common Causes of Dog Anxiety
There is no single cause for a dog's anxiety. Dogs whose parents had a compulsive disorder are more likely to exhibit these traits. At the same time, environmental factors, such as dog owner experience, home environment, and frequency of exercise, will also affect a dog's behavior. A number of things can trigger anxiety in your dog, including:
- Car rides
- Visits to the vet
- Loud noises such as thunderstorms or fireworks
- Unfamiliar surfaces or heights
- Being away from you (separation anxiety)
- Other animals
- Aging (some dogs get anxious as they experience cognitive decline)
It can be very difficult to pinpoint an exact cause, so be sure to make an appointment with your vet if you're concerned about your dog.
Signs That Your Dog Might Be Anxious
There are a number of symptoms to take note of if you think your dog may be suffering from anxiety. Here are some of the most prevalent indications that your dog could be feeling anxious:
- Trembling: As with humans, shaking and uncontrolled quivering is often a sign of anxiety
- Hiding: You may notice your dog hiding and cowering from a feared object or situation
- Pacing: An anxious dog feels restless and will typically pace back and forth
- Panting: Dogs who are feeling stressed will often pant even if there's no excess heat
- Excessive barking: Your dog might bark at an object they fear or howl because they're anxious when you're not home
- Averting eyes: A "whale eye" or "half-moon eye" is usually a sign of a nervous dog
- Tucked tail: A tail between the legs is a surefire sign that your dog is feeling nervous and afraid
- Indoor accidents: Urination and defecation inside the house
- Self-mutilation: Nervous tics and obsessive behavior such as chewing on their own leg, paws, or tail
- Leash aggression: Barking or lunging at passing dogs or people that occurs when your dog is on a leash — even though they do not display aggression when they're off leash
- Destructive behavior: Ripping at couches, chairs, doggie beds, or other items in the house
If you see any of these behaviors, contact an animal behaviorist. A behaviorist can work with you to provide behavior modification therapy and help you determine whether your pet's problem is serious enough to merit prescription medication.
Prescription Dog Anxiety Medication
Left untreated, anxiety can be extremely detrimental to a dog's health. If your vet determines that your dog has an anxiety disorder that requires medication, there are many options. You'll recognize some of the brand names as these drugs are similar to those used for people. Of course, you should never give a dog any drug intended for human use. Dogs metabolize medicine differently than people, and the dosage can vary greatly.
As with all prescription medications, these come with possible side effects, including withdrawal symptoms after long-term use. Make sure to discuss the risks with your vet.
- Alprazolam: Best known by its brand name Xanax, this anti-anxiety medication is part of the benzodiazepine class of drugs. Vets prescribe it to treat dogs who get nervous during thunderstorms or suffer from other phobias, post-traumatic stress, or depression.
- Diazepam: More commonly known as Valium, this sedative is another benzodiazepine drug that can ease a dog's anxiety by depressing activity in specific parts of the central nervous system.
- Amitriptyline: This tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) increases production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which help regulate mood within the brain. Vets typically prescribe it to treat separation anxiety, but it can be applied for more general anxiety as well.
- Fluoxetine: More commonly known by its name brand Prozac, fluoxetine is among the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class of drugs. It works by boosting the brain's serotonin levels. Vets prescribe it for separation anxiety and other anxious tendencies.
- Buspirone: This anti-anxiety medication affects chemicals in the brain (namely, by activating serotonin receptors). It's often prescribed to help dogs who get fearful or tense when interacting with other dogs or in other social situations.
- Clomipramine: Also known by its brand name Clomicalm, this tricyclic antidepressant works like Amitriptyline to calm a dog's mood. It's used to treat separation anxiety as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression in some dogs.
- Sileo: This is the first FDA-approved treatment for dogs with noise aversion. It can be administered on an as-needed basis to calm dogs who are frightened by loud noises.
- Trazodone: Another SSRI that increases serotonin levels, this drug treats a variety of anxiety disorders including noise aversion and separation anxiety.
Over-the-Counter and Holistic Options to Treat Dog Anxiety
If your dog isn't diagnosed with severe anxiety or behavior problems, your vet might recommend over-the-counter alternatives to prescription medications. One of the biggest upsides of not going the pharmaceutical route is that there are few to no side effects.
Using a combination of these drug-free methods may effectively calm a dog’s anxiety without having to resort to prescription meds. For example, you can give your dog soothing hemp treats while working with a behaviorist to boost the effects of these concurrent treatments.
Also called behavioral therapy, behavior modification is the first line of defense against dog anxiety. This drug-free approach requires an animal behaviorist or professional dog trainer. A trainer will expose your dog to the object causing their anxiety from a safe distance. With time, patience, and consistency, your dog can learn how to respond differently — and more positively — to whatever person, place, or thing is making them anxious.
When looking for calming supplements, opt for those with naturally soothing ingredients such as hemp oil, chamomile, and valerian root. PetHonesty's calming hemp chews contain these ingredients, which can help reduce anxiety and stress, plus hemp oil has the extra benefit of supporting joint health and mobility. Keep in mind that not all dog treats are created equal. Look for those that are made with whole food ingredients and don't contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or GMOs.
Pheromones are behavior-altering chemicals that animals naturally produce. However, you can buy pheromone-based products to change canine behavior. For example, Adaptil offers an odorless spray and plug-in diffuser that can create a sense of safety for your dog. Sentry calming collars also use pheromones to help dogs feel safe and secure.
Calming vests and jackets, like the well-known Thundershirt, can keep your dog calm and help ease anxiety. The gentle compression of these wearables is especially helpful during thunderstorms or events where there is loud noise. They may also help alleviate your dog's separation anxiety.
Keep Your Dog Happy and Healthy
While moments of anxiety are normal every now and again, if you notice your pet consistently shows signs of anxiety and exhibits the symptoms outlined in this guide, be sure to talk to your veterinarian. You know your pet best, so you'll be the first to know if something is awry.
As always, feeding your dog a nutritious diet of real whole foods, giving them regular exercise, and keeping their immune system in tip-top shape are the best ways to protect and promote their physical, mental, and emotional health. For more must-have information and helpful tips on maintaining your dog's health, check out the PetHonesty blog.
This article was vet approved by Dr. Brielle Weldon, MS, DVM, cVMA
Dr. Weldon is a leading holistic veterinarian who obtained her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Colorado State University and specializes in natural, gentle and alternative modalities for pet health and wellness. These include using herbs and supplements, acupuncture, laser therapy and more.