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Anxiety in dogs

Health and Wellbeing

Although it can be upsetting for you and your dog to deal with, it’s important to remember that occasional anxiety is a normal emotional response in our pets. 

Just like people, dogs can feel anxiety from time to time and it often has an identifiable cause, for example, fireworks, vet visits, or car rides. Even changes to your dog's everyday routine can trigger anxiety.

Anxiety in dogs

However, some dogs can live with persistent, chronic anxiety that is well beyond the normal levels. Their anxiety can seem to come out of nowhere, and they might always seem on edge.

Dogs can develop phobias and anxiety disorders which can affect their daily life and wellbeing, and they will require treatment to help reduce their anxiety and improve their quality of life.

But how can you distinguish normal anxiety in dogs from an anxiety disorder? What can you do to treat anxiety in dogs? Let’s investigate all there is to know about dog anxiety from its causes and symptoms, to treatment and prevention.

Anxiety in Dogs

Anxiety and the “fight or flight” response can help to protect your dog from danger because out in the wild, it would engage them to either fight and defend themselves from a threat, or run away from it.

Nowadays, some of the things which cause our dogs anxiety and trigger this response can seem mundane and safe to us and leave us perplexed as to why our dogs are reacting to them. But we humans often forget the dangers that could be associated with certain situations, or how they might seem threatening to an animal smaller than us or without the same understanding of the world as we do.

Often a dog will have a brief anxious response to something new, stressful or strange. This is perfectly normal and often only lasts a few minutes, perhaps a few hours.

However if a dog’s anxiety persists, they might be suffering from an anxiety disorder. If nothing is done to try and alleviate or correct these increasing levels of anxiety, a dog can develop further behavioural problems.

Anxiety can affect any dog of any breed or sex at any time of their life. However, advancing age and illness can make a dog more likely to be anxious. Similarly, certain family lines and breeds seem to be more prone to developing anxiety.

Anxiety vs anxiety disorder in dogs

Anxiety is a natural feeling for dogs, and a normal emotional response to changes in their routine, changes in their home, or exposure to a new or stressful situation.

If the mood comes and goes infrequently, it’s probably anxiety. However, if the feeling is more chronic and persistent, then it may be an anxiety disorder.

Some dogs suffer from disproportionate levels of nerves, anxiety, or fear as a result of an anxiety disorder. If your dog’s feelings of anxiety appear unexpectedly, if their nerves are disproportionate to the situation, or your dog seems nervous or scared for long periods of time, they might have an anxiety disorder.

Identifying and treating anxiety disorders in dogs is crucial because it will improve the quality of life for your pet, and improve your bond with your dog.

Not to mention, we all know that stress has a detrimental effect on the body, and it’s no different with our waggy-tailed friends. For example, extreme non-social fear and separation anxiety may be linked to increased severity and frequency of skin disorders in dogs. And although greater study is needed, there is a correlation between a fear of strangers and shortened lifespan in dogs, as well as evidence that living with severe anxiety can have a detrimental impact on your pooch’s health

Types of anxiety disorder in dogs

There are four main types of anxiety disorders in dogs. These are:

●      Generalised anxiety disorder

●      Separation anxiety

●      Social anxiety

●      Environmental anxiety

Generalised anxiety

Generalised anxiety is just that, general. It can appear without warning and often has no identifiable trigger. It means your dog seems generally anxious, but the feeling is chronic and affects their daily lives.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is the most common form of anxiety in dogs, and what most owners think of when anyone discusses an anxious dog. A dog will show signs of sadness, agitation, or anxiety when they know that their owner, or another loved one, is preparing to leave.

Dog anxiety disorder

Once the dog’s owner has left, the dog will be unable to find comfort and display distressed behaviours such as barking, urinating, defecation, destructive behaviour, and even escape attempts.

Social Anxiety

Some dogs can seem extremely nervous or fearful around new dogs and humans that they meet, showing signs of social anxiety.

Environmental anxiety

Environmental anxiety is when your dog is anxious or fearful of a specific environment, or anxious at leaving the “safe” environment of home. A common environmental anxiety would be a dog that is scared of the vet or going into cars.

Although environmental anxiety is often associated with specific places, they can also be triggered by frightening situations or noises, such as sirens.

What causes anxiety in dogs?

There are many different causes of anxiety in dogs, from traumatic experiences, to improper socialisation as a puppy, the onset of doggy dementia, or even genetics. The cause of anxiety will vary from dog to dog, and sometimes it can be hard to even pinpoint a cause for their anxiety.

The main three causes of anxiety in dogs can be grouped as either fear, separation, or ageing. A dog’s genetics can also make a dog more prone to being nervous or anxious too.

Fear

Many doggy fears and anxieties are triggered by a specific stimulus. This could be anything from a noise to an object, an experience, or even a surface.

Many fear-based anxieties are caused because an object or environment is new, for example, if your dog has never seen a bike before, suddenly having one pass them on a walk might be very stressful and scary because it’s completely new. The same goes for objects like umbrellas, since seeing one open might spook a dog if it’s new to them. Sometimes, even a new surface underfoot, like a tiled floor, could upset your pooch.

Making sure your puppy is properly socialised and exposed to as many new objects, environments, and experiences as possible can help to build their confidence and prevent anxiety and phobias later in life.

Some anxieties might be caused by a previous traumatic experience. It could also be caused by previous stressful situations, such as a trip to the vet, and so the dog becomes anxious about visiting the vets.

Because previous experience and lack of socialisation can cause anxiety, it is often seen in dogs who have had multiple homes and lacked consistent socialisation and training during their upbringing.

Many dogs can seem frightened by something new or stressful, but usually calm down within a few minutes. Being briefly scared of anything new, strange, or stressful is normal. However if a dog’s anxious behaviour persists, or happens consistently, you will need to intervene and contact your vet for help.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety affects around 14% of dogs - it’s so common that it’s grouped on its own as a cause for anxiety. That number is set to rise following lockdowns and working from home and the increased time we’ve spent with our dogs. Many of our pets are suffering from separation anxiety as our human lives return to normal.

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are unable to relax or comfort themselves if they are separated from their owners and become distressed and display unwanted behaviours.

Some dogs may develop separation anxiety after being abandoned or rehomed, and have subsequently developed a fear of abandonment. However, most dogs develop separation anxiety because they have become hyper-attached to their owners and being separated from them for even a short amount of time causes overreactions, stress and anxiety.

Prolonged separation isn’t the only cause of separation anxiety. Even a simple change in an owner’s routine can cause separation anxiety in a dog.

Ageing and illness

Many dogs will become anxious as they get older, and this is relatively normal.

As your dog ages, their senses may deteriorate. They may develop cataracts which affect their vision, or they could lose some of their hearing. Losing some of their senses might sound scary, but most dogs adapt very well and live happily with these changes to their ageing body.

However, not being able to see or hear as well as they once could can make dogs more anxious, or easily startled.

Additionally, there are age-related health conditions such as dementia that could make your dog confused or anxious.

Similarly, any health condition, regardless of age, could increase your dog’s anxiety. Dogs who are in pain or suffering from an underlying illness can become more nervous or fearful than usual.

Genetics

Generalised anxiety or fear in dogs often follows a familial pattern, so genetics seem to play a part in doggy anxiety. Your dog might inherit a more nervous disposition or shy personality, and this could make them more likely to be anxious as an adult. However, anxiety is still affected by other factors such as previous stressful experiences, novelty, or age.

According to the American Kennel Club, there are over 50 breeds of dog with family lines where fear, shyness, nervousness, panic, or anxiety is a point of concern amongst breeders.

As the anxious disposition seems to follow branches of a family tree, it suggests that anxiety disorders could be caused by genetics, or there is a level of inheritability that makes a dog more prone to developing an anxiety disorder.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety in dogs

The signs and symptoms of anxiety in dogs will vary between individual pets and the severity of their anxiety. No matter what causes your dog’s anxiety, their body language will tell you how they are feeling.

Signs of anxiety in dogs include:

●      Unusual reactions to new or strange things

●      Overreactions to situations/environments/people/etc

●      Panting

●      Pacing or restlessness

●      Ears pinned back

●      Tail tucked between the back legs

●      Unwanted urination

●      Unwanted defecation

●      Shivering or shaking

●      Loss of appetite

●      Excessive barking

●      Whining or crying

●      Howling

●      Destructive behaviour

●      Obsessive or compulsive behaviours

●      Aggression

●      Hiding

●      Digging

●      Escape attempts

Aggression is by far the most dangerous sign associated with anxiety, and it could be direct or indirect. Direct aggression is when a dog will act aggressively towards other people, dogs, or objects. Indirect aggression is when a person or dog gets between the anxious dog and the source of their fear, getting caught in the crossfire.

Many of the signs of anxiety in dogs can be a one-off. For example, if it’s the first time your pooch encounters something new, or if your dog hasn’t had enough exercise one day, they may act bored or destructive due to lack of stimulation.

However it is still important that you pay attention to any signs of anxiety your dog displays, just in case they happen again. If any symptoms of anxiety reoccur, you should consider talking to your vet or a canine behaviourist.

How is anxiety in dogs treated?

In this section we’ll talk about how to treat and manage chronic anxiety or an anxiety disorder in dogs. We’ll talk about what to do if your pup is anxious for the first time or how to calm regular anxiety in the next section, “how to calm anxiety in dogs”.

Firstly, if you think your dog is more anxious than normal, you must talk to your vet. They can help you to understand how your dog is feeling and work with you to identify any causes for your pet’s anxiety, and whether it’s becoming an ongoing problem for your pooch.

Anxiety in dogs

Because there can be many causes for anxiety, and it’s often a result of multiple factors, it’s often treated with a combination of preventative strategies, further training, and prescribed medication.

Prevention

Forcing a dog into a stressful situation will not help them overcome their anxiety, in fact, it will probably make things worse. Many dogs develop fears if they are forced into situations they find scary or stressful and cannot escape.

For example, if your dog is socially anxious, forcing them to meet other dogs and keeping them close to them won’t suddenly make them more social. If anything, it is more likely to bring out nervous or aggressive behaviour.

So if you know your dog is anxious about a specific situation or experience, do your best to avoid the trigger until you have done some training with your dog and you’re confident your pup will be able to experience the situation without a fearful reaction.

For example, if your dog is scared of other dogs, try to walk them at quiet times of the day in less busy areas.

Over time and with training, you can start to carefully introduce your dog to the trigger in environments where they won’t become anxious. Exposure to triggers must be done in a careful and controlled manner as part of a training plan.

Training

One of the important steps of managing anxiety in dogs is training. There are two training strategies to help treat anxiety in dogs, and these are desensitising or counterconditioning.

Desensitising

Desensitising is when you try to reduce your dog’s sensitivity towards the triggers for their anxiety.

This is done by repeatedly exposing your dog to the trigger at very low intensity and in safe environments so that they don’t react fearfully. With repetitions, the intensity is increased until eventually the dog no longer responds to the trigger with anxiety or fear.

For example, if your dog has separation anxiety and gets agitated when they know you’re going out, figure out what triggers make your dog realise you’re about to leave. This could be something like putting your shoes on or grabbing your keys.

You can start doing these things occasionally, but remain in the house. Like putting your shoes on and walking around.

Reward your dog if they stay calm during these periods, or if they do something positive like chewing on their toys to comfort themselves. The goal in this case would be to increase the time you have your shoes on, or the amount of times you put them on, or to even to be able to go outside for a while without the dog.

Eventually, your dog will realise that these triggers don’t always mean that you’re leaving, and that they aren’t a sign to start getting anxious. Which means when they happen for real, your dog won’t be as fraught.

Another example would be if your dog is scared of loud noises like fireworks, you can slowly desensitise them so the noise isn’t so scary for them

A good way of doing this is finding a video of fireworks on YouTube and playing it around your pooch. To begin with, play it with the sound off so your dog can get used to the visual stimulus. Then play it very quietly so the noise doesn’t spook your dog.

Gradually over time, you can increase the volume and the length of time the noise is on for. By starting small and working your way up, your dog should start getting used to the loud noises as they become less stressful for them.

Counterconditioning

While desensitisation tries to reduce a dog’s response to a trigger, counterconditioning tries to teach your dog to replace a negative response to a trigger with a positive one.

You can do this by simply rewarding your pooch whenever a trigger occurs, such as giving them a treat whenever you pick up your keys. This means they should start to associate the previous trigger with something positive instead.

Alternatively, you can work to replace the undesirable behaviour with a positive and constructive behaviour.

For example, if your dog gets restless when anxious, try to distract them and redirect their focus by getting them into a sit or down and rewarding them when they do.

Asking your dog to do something can help to distract them from the source of their anxiety, and it gives them a more positive behaviour to act out. This works well if you pre-empt triggers, or can recognise the early signs of your dog getting stressed, so you can intervene before your dog starts to panic.

On the other hand if your dog becomes destructive when anxious, you can instead give them a stuffed Kong to chew or a puzzle toy to play with. This should redirect their behaviour into a more constructive use of their energy, and will help to distract them from the source of their anxiety whilst keeping them occupied with a positive behaviour.

Medication for anxiety in dogs

As well as helping you to come up with a training plan to treat your dog’s anxiety, your vet might prescribe medication for your pooch.

There are several medications for anxiety in dogs. If your dog has a severe anxiety disorder, your vet might prescribe an animal antidepressant which will help to keep your dog calm. In cases of separation anxiety, antidepressants help a dog’s behaviour to improve 3x faster than dogs without medication.

In the majority of cases, medication is prescribed short-term to help stabilise your dog’s mood and to reduce stress. This is so you and your pooch can see an improvement in their anxiety, which can encourage you both to begin training and other methods to help combat their anxiety long-term. As mentioned above, many dogs will also respond better to training when it is combined with medication.

In some instances, a dog may require daily anxiety medication for a longer period of time, but only if there is a visible improvement to your dog’s wellbeing. And because the medication is alleviating their anxiety, it is also improving their quality of life.

Some dogs with specific anxieties, or when you can predict an anxious period, might only receive medication just for a few days. If you are anticipating a stressful event, such as a house move or firework night, your vet might prescribe a short-acting medication for your dog’s anxiety. Typically this will be a medicine like diazepine, which is a sedative that helps to relax your dog.

In all of these cases, medication will help your dog short-term. It will also put you and your pooch in a calmer position where they are more responsive to training. However, medicine won’t resolve the cause of your dog’s anxiety, which is why it is given in tandem with a training plan because it is the training that will allow you to manage your dog’s anxiety long-term.

Home remedies for anxiety in dogs

Some people tout giving Benadryl for anxiety in dogs as a “home remedy” for canine anxiety. This is because Benadryl and other antihistamines can have a sedative effect, which will calm a dog down by making them sleepy.

However, the sedative effects of Benadryl are mild and not very effective. Additionally, many dogs with underlying health conditions cannot safely consume this antihistamine.

It’s also a short-term fix, and won’t actually do anything to resolve the cause of your dog’s anxiety. You will still need to provide training and other strategies for your dog in order to manage their anxiety long-term.

How to calm anxiety in dogs

If your dog is showing signs of anxiety, there are things you can do to try and settle them. You can use many of the training strategies above to help calm down your dog in a stressful situation, and tackle short-term anxiety.

If your dog is only anxious from time to time, it can still benefit you and your pooch to work on desensitising or counterconditioning them to common triggers.

Even if you have the most easy-going pooch on the planet, you can probably think of one or two stressful situations that you can work on together. Fireworks and bath time immediately come to mind!

Try using the same training tactics as listed above. If your dog is anxious when you leave them home alone, keeping them occupied with Kong toys stuffed with Pure or puzzle toys can really help to distract them and provide a positive behaviour.

There are also several tools you can use to help calm anxiety, including medication as mentioned above.

Other tools to help calm anxiety in dogs

Anxiety plug in for dogs

One tool often used to help calm anxious dogs is dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) which helps to promote relaxation. They are generally very safe to use, even for dogs with health conditions, and they are proven to help ease anxiety in some dogs.

The most common tool used to release these pheromones into the air is an anxiety plug in for dogs, which goes in your wall socket. However, you can also buy DAPs as sprays, or a collar which periodically releases pheromones from a device attached to it.

However it’s important to remember that although these sprays and plug-ins can ease anxiety, they do not address the underlying cause of your dog’s anxiety. It should be used alongside a training plan or the treatment plan laid out by your vet or behaviourist.

CBD oil

CBD oil, or hemp oil, has become a popular supplement for humans, and recent studies indicate that it might have an anti-anxiety effect. Although studies are still limited, this supplement is now emerging in the veterinary world too, and CBD oil might help to calm anxiety in dogs.

You will need to consult with your vet as to whether this product is safe for your individual dog. This is especially important to check if your dog has a health condition or is on medication as CBD may interact unpredictably with other medicines or supplements. You will also need their guidance on what dosage would be safe for your pet.

Puzzle toys

Toys are one of the best tools you can use when it comes to treating anxiety in dogs, whether it’s a one-off stress or a chronic problem.

Firstly, providing plenty of enrichment for your dog will help them to use their energy in constructive ways, rather than unwanted behaviours like digging or destroying. Exercise is one way to help your dog to use their energy and provide daily enrichment, but giving them plenty of different toys to play with, puzzle toys to occupy them, or stimulating activities like scent games can help to vent your dog’s excess energy and boredom.

Toys and games will also help to occupy your dog and distract them from the source of their anxiety. Giving them their favourite toy when exposed to a trigger can help them to begin associating positive experiences with it.

Meanwhile, giving your pup a Kong stuffed with Pure or another puzzle toy will help to keep them occupied when they’re left alone, distracting their focus from their human’s absence and giving them something positive to do instead of other unwanted behaviours.

Outlook

All dogs will feel anxious at some point in their lives, but in many cases it will be a passing emotional response and not a persistent problem. Regardless, it’s still important to recognise the signs of anxiety in dogs and what you can do to help calm your pooch should you ever face a situation that becomes stressful for them.

If you are worried that your dog is anxious or fearful, contact your vet for advice. They will be able to rule out any other illness or pain that could be causing your dog’s behavioural changes, and they will help to diagnose the cause of your pet’s anxiety. They will also devise a treatment plan that best suits you and your dog’s individual needs, and they can refer you to canine behaviourists who could provide further help.

Remember, helping your dog to overcome their anxiety disorder will take time. However you tackle it, with training or medication, there is no magic cure or quick fix and it will take a few months of consistent training and reinforcement for your dog to overcome their fear.

But the bottom line is that anxiety in dogs can be effectively managed and treated with a combination of training, prevention, and medication as suited to your dog’s needs. Just remember to be “pawsitive” and patient!

Dr Andrew Miller BVSc MRCVS

Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS

Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.

Sources
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  3. Treatment of separation anxiety in dogs with clomipramine: results from a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, multicenter clinical trial Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 67, (4), April 2000, 255-275, doi.org/10.1016/S0168-1591(99)00127-6