Your Dog Gets Anxious Too
Many of us are all too familiar with anxiety. If you don’t experience it yourself, chances are that you are close to someone who does. An increased sense of stress, worry, or fear can come in multiple forms of anxiety disorders, which affect over 30% of adults in the US at some time in their lives. After the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever have experienced anxiety. But anxiety isn’t a uniquely human trait. Our furry friends also experience anxiety, which can manifest in various ways. This may mean displaying separation anxiety, having fears and phobias, or a general sense of nervousness. When we can learn why our dogs feel anxious, then we can work with them to minimize excessive anxiety and be the healthiest and happiest pup possible.
Fear Is Normal
Fear is an aversive emotional state with physiological, behavioral, and emotional reactions to stimuli that are perceived as a real threat or danger. The responses are relative to how your pet perceives the situation, even if they are not in “true” danger. Sometimes, stimuli are simply unfamiliar but not harmful. Fears may be rational or irrational, helping to keep the pet alive and safe. Just like us, anxiety and fear have a helpful basis for dogs, but can sometimes get out of hand, especially when you observe anxious behavior in the absence of a threat. There are times when fear can compromise the pet’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
Anxiety often will manifest itself physically in the body. When a dog is so stressed that they physically display it regularly, their immune system is weakened and becomes more susceptible to disease. At our clinic, we see that pets with chronic health issues may also have anxiety. It is very important to consider anxiety seriously and find ways to help calm your furry friend.
The physiological reaction results in increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate (panting), trembling, pacing, and possible urination, defecation and/or anal sac secretion. Dogs might even have sweaty paws. Emotional reactions are most often gauged by body language rather than vocalizations. Vocalizations when frightened can include anything from whimpers and yelps, to growls and barking. But dogs actively change their body language when afraid, and may avoid eye contact or look away, turn away, lick their lips, yawn, shake as if they are wet, or shiver as if they are cold. When a perceived threat increases, you may see your dog lower their head and body, pin their ears back, widen their eyes, and tuck their tail under their body. If possible, they may flee or hide to avoid this perceived threat.
Fear may also result in aggressive responses from dogs. It can be a normal behavior when escape is not possible and your pet feels the need to become defensive. In defensive aggression, it is a distance increasing signal. They are saying, “Leave me alone! I’m scared!” On the other hand, fear can also be offensive. Dogs who learn that aggression makes the perceived threat go away will become more confident and potentially more offensive. They may seem less afraid, but fear still motivates the behavior. Learn more about aggression in dogs here.
Separation anxiety occurs when your furry friend feels anxiety or panic when they are separated from their favorite humans. Common symptoms include vocalization, salivation, destructive behavior, attempting to escape, inappropriate urination or defecation, lack of appetite when alone, or self-trauma like licking or chewing. More severe cases of separation anxiety are characterized by a dog becoming so panicked that they break through fences or windows, chew at walls and doors, and engage in other destructive behaviors. You also might notice your dog acting anxious when you get ready to leave home, like pacing, panting, jumping on you, seeking attention, avoiding confinement areas like their crate, or trying to escape and leave with you.
But why do dogs develop separation anxiety? Some dogs may lack routine, causing life to feel unstable and uncertain. Routines build predictability and reduce anxiety in people and pets. Daily routines do not need to be strict, but regular activities can help protect against separation anxiety. Ensure that the following activities are done regularly to make every day a tail-wagging success!
- Proper nutrition (regular meals)
- Medical care and grooming
- Physical exercise
- Mental stimulation
- Training and positive reinforcement
- Calming treats
- Structured games
- Protection from stress or fear
- Social interaction and exploration of new things
- Time for calm and rest
More dogs than ever are experiencing separation anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic, where regular routines changed a lot. Pets may have become very attached to a specific person as they spent every day together in lockdown. If this is the case for your pet, you are not alone. However, it is important that furry friends are able to self soothe and be on their own at times. Look into independence training so your pup feels comfortable and rewarded during downtime, or when they are home alone.
If you notice any signs of separation anxiety, contact your veterinarian. There are many ways to help prevent and treat separation anxiety. Make sure to avoid showing excessive emotion when leaving or returning home. This only teaches your dog to also feel overly upset or excited and can increase separation anxiety. Most importantly, give your dog lots of love daily so they feel supported by their favorite humans.
Anticipating Your Dog’s Fears
Pets can anticipate unpleasant situations, events, or outcomes based on previous learned experiences. Anxiety may be situational, coming up only in specific contexts (anticipating being left home alone, or a trip to the vet) or generalized, happening regardless of the environment or context (appearing anxious or nervous even in familiar environments or with their favorite humans). A general sense of anxiety can manifest through excessive vocalization, destruction or escape behavior, inappropriate urination, and compulsive or repetitive behaviors like excessive grooming, panting, pacing, or drooling.
Triggers vary based on each individual pet, and can include people, pets, sounds, objects, or the environment. Anxious behaviors are especially common when dogs go to the veterinary clinic, hear the sound of fireworks and thunderstorms, and are left home alone away from their human companions. Sometimes, fear is the result of an early experience that felt unpleasant for your pet. If their fearful response was successful at avoiding a stimulus through aggression, running away, or any other fear response, a dog is more likely to repeat that behavior again. Punishment may also cause fear and anxiety when it is closely associated with a stimulus. If an owner is frustrated or anxious, this too will further aggravate and justify their dog’s fear.
Ultimately, your dog’s fear response will depend on their personality, the stimulus presented, whether or not they are at home or near family members, and if they are restrained and unable to escape. Make sure to remain patient and calm when your dog acts afraid. Talk in a low, soothing voice and stay in a relaxed body position. Bringing along treats and play toys and giving them to the pet when they enter new environments can help create a positive association. Consider an anxiety vest or t-shirt for your dog that applies pressure and soothes the body and mind. There are also calming treats and supplements that may be helpful as well. If you are unsure of how to handle your dog’s anxiety, talk with the team at Harmony Vet to discuss strategies to help you and your pet navigate potentially stressful situations.
Learn more about how to understand and manage your dog’s general fears, phobias, and anxiety here. Remember that you are not alone in managing canine anxiety; it is a common issue for many dogs that does not have to stop them from living a long and happy life. When in doubt, learn more about your dog’s anxiety through trusted internet websites, dog training experts, and your friends at Harmony Vet Center.