It may seem like your dog's life is pretty worry-free, but dogs do experience anxiety, and anxiety-related problems, just like people do. People and dogs may experience anxiety, a feeling of fear and uneasiness, for legitimate reasons when there is a hazard or danger in our environment. This type of fear response has been necessary to survival for both dogs and people throughout our history.
Can Dogs Get Anxiety?
When anxiety manifests and a legitimate danger is not present, or, when excessive uneasiness presents due to a perceived threat, an anxiety disorder exists. Often anxiety in a pet owner can transfer to your dog. Dog’s perceive their families as their “packs”, and if fear exists in another pack member, especially in their “leader”, it can cause an anxiety response in your dog. Anxiety may develop for other reasons related to your dog's misperception of threats in the environment, and factors such as predisposition, temperament, and health may also contribute to anxiety states, just as they do in people.
Does My Dog Have Anxiety?
Symptoms of anxiety in your dog may include vocalizing, which would include howling or incessant barking, behavior changes such as manifesting aggression, submission characterized by clinginess or presenting their belly, and shaking or trembling. Dogs experiencing anxiety may break house training and have “accidents”, especially when separation anxiety exists. Chronic anxiety may result in self mutilating behavior, such as chewing at their skin, hair loss, and other self injury.
Anxiety in your dog may be the result of separation anxiety, or anxiety around their relationship with you. If they feel insecure when you (their “leader”) are not present, or if they sense weakness in you or another family member, they may react with anxiety. Dogs are hierarchical pack members; they require a strong, confident leader and a feeling of having a place in their pack to feel secure. If this is absent or compromised, they may become anxious. In addition, post traumatic stress disorder and past abuse may result in anxiety in your dog. Many dogs exhibit fear of something they perceive as threatening in their environment, such as strange objects or loud noises--gunshots and thunder are common fear triggers in dogs. Some dogs are more susceptible to anxiety disorders either due to individual temperament, past experience, such as abuse, or genetic and breeding predilection. Breeds that tend to manifest anxiety more often include, chihuahua, Dachshund, Yorkshire terrier, poodles, and Maltese.
Your veterinarian will diagnose anxiety disorder based on your description of your dog's history and symptoms, and after ruling out any physical disorder or illness that could account for their symptoms.
Learn more at: Anxiety in Dogs.
How Do I Treat My Dog’s Anxiety?
There are several medications, products, and behavior modification techniques that can be employed to reduce or eliminate anxiety in your dog.
Your veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety medication or sedatives to help your dog, especially in specific anxiety-producing situations. Long-term use of medication may result in unwanted side effects, however, in specific instances, such as when traveling, or when avoidance of an anxiety trigger is impossible, medication for your dog may resolve the problem with few negative consequences.
If the anxiety trigger can be removed, pet owners can avoid exposing their dog to the anxiety-provoking situation, however, this is often not realistic. In these cases, behavioral modification techniques may be useful. These include desensitization, conditioning, habituation, shaping, and counterconditioning. Providing a safe den with a dog crate and increased exercise may also help reduce anxiety in your pet. Behavior modification has a more long-lasting effect, without side effects, providing that it is administered consistently and with patience.
Some commercial products such as anxiety wraps may be useful at reducing anxiety in specific situations in your pet. The wraps are “jackets” that provide light, all-over pressure, giving the dog a feeling of security in a stressful situation, such as when exposed to loud noises such as thunderstorms. These products may or may not work for your pet, but they are relatively inexpensive, and present minimal risk, so may be worth a try for some dogs experiencing situation-specific anxiety.
Consult our guide to Anxiety in Dogs for more information and to receive responses from an in-house veterinarian.
How is Anxiety Similar in Dogs and Humans?
All animals experience fear and anxiety as a legitimate response to threats in their environment and their physiological responses are very similar. An increase in heart rate and respiration provides oxygen to the tissues in preparation for fight or flight. However, this response can occur when threats are not present, resulting in negative symptoms and behavior disorders. Examples of anxiety triggers common to most pets including dogs and in humans are:
Separation anxiety (common in dogs and children due to caregiver attachments)
Abuse or trauma
Lack of affection and positive relationships
Health problems, an animal that is ill is more prone to reacting with anxiety
How is Anxiety Different in Dogs, Humans, and Other Pets?
Animals are different than humans in that they lack certain reasoning abilities and the ability to communicate verbally. It is impossible to explain or rationalize a perceived threat away to a dog.
Animals respond to strong, confident leaders. When they perceive weakness or inconsistency in their leader they can experience confusion and anxiety.
Cats are less relationship bound then dogs and less prone to relationship and separation anxiety, although they can experience these conditions as well.
A human's ability to reason may allow us to react differently to absent loved ones, or inconsistency in our relationships, that your dog or cat may not be able to process.
A young poodle, who was not well-socialized with humans, and who was kept in an environment with limited stimulation, reacted fearfully when adopted into a home with multiple family members. Systematic desensitization was used to remove any directly overt approaches, dominant behavior, threatening moves, or direct eye contact from family members until she became less fearful around them. Then, gradual introduction of human attention resulted in the young dog becoming accustomed to family members and able to receive attention and affection without fear.