What is Anxiety?
Even the calmest of dogs may experience anxiety in traumatizing situations, and some canines always seem on high alert. No matter whether you are an animal trainer, pet owner, or just an overall animal lover, it is important to know the signs of stress in dogs and to teach those signs to others, particularly children. Dogs with ongoing anxiety issues may be helped by calming actions, natural remedies, behavioral training, and in some cases, using prescription medications.
Knowing the signs of anxiety in dogs will help to encourage happier, more confident animals, and prevent property destruction as well as preventing injuries to either humans or canines.
Symptoms of Anxiety in Dogs
Anxiety is communicated through the canine’s facial expressions, body posture, and behavior. Some of the signs that your dog may be anxious include:
- Aggressive chewing
- Ears held back
- Escape behaviors
- Exaggerated yawning
- Excessive vocalizations
- Frantic tail chasing
- Housetraining accidents
- Licking nose or face (with no food present)
- Lip tension
- Showing the whites of the eye
- Submissive rolling over
- Tail tucked under
- Whites of the eye turning red
Even the most well-balanced canines can experience anxiety under traumatic circumstances, but for some dogs, it can develop into a debilitating disorder know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder that is triggered by an event or ordeal in which grave physical harm either occurred or was threatened. Although this disorder is more common in canines who work in military or law enforcement positions, it can happen in civilian dogs as well. Some situations that can lead to PTSD in civilian dogs can include:
- Animal attack (including other dogs)
- Experiencing a natural disaster
- Maltreatment by or loss of a human caretaker
- Witnessing violence to companion (human or otherwise)
Causes of Anxiety in Dogs
Dogs that show anxiety during storms may be responding to the static electricity and barometric changes in the air rather than the sound. In those cases, anti-static treatments formulated for a dog’s fur or storm jackets may be helpful in reducing anxiety.
Noise is a very common instigator of anxiety in canines, particularly the sounds of fireworks, vacuum cleaners, or of thunder. Noise anxiety is a common component to PTSD in dogs.
Separation anxiety is characterized by frantic destructive behavior, loud and excessive vocalizations, and house soiling when either the person the animal is most bonded to leaves their environment or when the dog is left completely alone (also known as isolation anxiety).
Social anxiety can take the form of anxiety with other dogs, anxiety with humans, or a combination of both. This can be expressed by either extremely submissive behavior or irritable and aggressive behaviors.
Many canines experience the same motion induced nausea that some humans do. Other dogs may simply be nervous due to the fear of the unknown or past negative associations; particularly for dogs that travel infrequently or only to places that they may consider unpleasant, like the veterinarian's office or groomers.
Diagnosis of Anxiety in Dogs
Many dogs enjoy physical interaction with people, some only accept hands on attention from their owners, and still others never really enjoy it. Here are a few ways to know whether a specific dog is open to your attention.
There are multiple reasons that a dog may roll on its back it may want belly rubs, playtime, or it may actually be afraid and trying to appease you. A dog that is afraid will hold itself close, often tucking its tail between its legs, whereas a happy dog who wants its belly scratched will generally have a loose and relaxed appearance.
Most dogs do not particularly like being hugged, it is not a natural behavior for dogs, and it limits their ability to move away from danger. Although snuggling with a favorite human is often an enjoyable experience for both human and animal, the act of wrapping your arms around the neck or body of a canine may be interpreted as an aggressive act, and even dogs that tolerate this behavior frequently show signs of distress.
Dogs typically enjoy being petted in one form or another. This activity frequently encourages the production of the hormone oxytocin, the hormone most responsible for feelings of bonding. For many dogs, certain types of petting may seem more threatening than soothing, and some dogs may not like being touched much at all. If the dog you are petting turns its head away from you or moves away, licks their lips or nose, yawns, or hold their ears back or laid flat, there is a good chance that dog is not enjoying their interaction.
Treatment of Anxiety in Dogs
Treatment for an anxious dog will depend on the severity of the anxiety, the type of anxiety being displayed, and the frequency of the reaction. If your dog is showing signs of distress due to a new situation, such as the first thunderstorm or car ride, it is generally a better choice to distract your dog rather than comfort it. Comforting your dog in a new but unthreatening situation may lead them to believe that their fear is valid, rather than alleviate it, alternate methods of calming your dog may include speaking to the dog in a calm and low voice, playing music designed to reduce stress for dogs, giving your dog some exercise (whether through playing or by taking a nice long walk), or calming pheromones. For dogs that have developed anxious behaviors that are recurring, such as social anxiety, fear of noises, or moderate separation anxiety, behavioral training may take time, but it often results in a happier confident dog, and herbal supplements may be recommended by your veterinarian.
In the most extreme cases, medication may be required to calm your companion’s nerves. This most often takes the form of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications such as diazepam or prozac, although a new drug was approved in 2016 for dogs with certain types of anxiety. The new drug is an oromucosal gel that is administered just before or during the inciting event as it has a rapid onset of just thirty minutes to a half hour and lasts between two and three hours.
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Recovery of Anxiety in Dogs
First impressions can be very important, for dogs as well as people. To be sure you make a good first impression with a new dog, use the following guidelines:
- Always let the dog make first contact
- Children should never approach an unsupervised dog on their own, and adults should be cautious when approaching, even if the dog is wagging its tail
- Do not lean directly over the dog
- If the dog is accompanied by it’s owner, ask permission before petting it
- Keep eye contact brief and non-threatening
- Pet the dog’s chest, shoulders and the base of the neck; avoid reaching over the head or around the throat area