Anxiety in Dogs: What Causes It, and Can You Prevent It?

Sep 2, 2021

Anxiety is an insidious disorder and can cause a lot of discomfort to your dog and in turn to the rest of the family.  Anxiety in dogs is as common as anxiety in humans. Any breed of dog can experience anxiety, and just like with humans, it doesn’t matter what size a dog is when it comes to anxiety. Anxiety might come from an easily identifiable cause, such as when you leave your home (separation anxiety) or thunderstorms, fireworks, and vet visits (situational anxiety). Or there may seem to be no discernible cause for your pup’s anxiety. Anxiety isn’t logical with dogs, the same way it can be illogical in humans. 

A guide to Anxiety in Dogs

Anxiety can present itself differently with different dogs. Sometimes the anxiety is only present as certain situations arise, such as a car ride or thunderstorms. Other times, the anxiety is more constant and is on the chronic end of the spectrum. Some of the most common causes of anxiety in dogs, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, are fear, separation, and aging. 

  1. Fear-related anxiety can be caused by external stimuli. Some of the things that stimulate fear in dogs make a lot of sense, such as the loud noises caused by fireworks, or thunderstorms, new people visiting the home, being in new and strange environments (such as going on a trip). If your dog is a rescue with a traumatic background, things that remind your dog of its previous living situation can trigger an anxiety response. Many dogs can respond anxiously to stimuli, but a chronically anxious dog is likely to be more affected.
  2. Separation anxiety is estimated to affect around 14 percent of pups. Separation anxiety occurs when the dog is left alone, like when you go to work, and the dog cannot self-soothe. Separation anxiety can lead to any number of challenging behaviors, such as urinating or defecating in the house, destroying furniture, or chewing on rugs, and everyone’s favorite, non-stop barking or howling. Barking and howling can not only mean your dog is stressed, but it can also annoy neighbors, and make your neighborhood relationships more challenging.
  3. Age-related anxiety is perhaps the saddest cause of anxiety in dogs. As dogs age, some of them start to experience cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). CDS in dogs starts to affect their memory, ability to learn, perceptions, and general awareness. (This is similar to Alzheimer’s in humans.) As these abilities decline this understandably leads to confusion and anxiety in the senior dog. 
  4. Trauma can also lead to an anxiety disorder in dogs, just as it can with humans. If you have a rescue pup, you are likely familiar with anxious behavior. Other traumatic events such as a fight with another dog at the dog park, or stress in the home environment can trigger anxiety in dogs.

How do you know if your dog has anxiety?

Some of the more common signs of anxiety in pets include: 

  1. Aggression
  2. Urinating or defecating in the house
  3. Drooling
  4. Panting
  5. Destructive behaviors
  6. Depression
  7. Excessive barking
  8. Pacing
  9. Restlessness
  10. Repetitive or compulsive behaviors

Situational vs. Chronic Anxiety

There are two different kinds of anxiety your dog can experience and those are situational and chronic. While this is a little simplistic, since a dog with chronic anxiety can also experience situational anxiety, let’s take a look at the two types, since the approaches in handling each type of anxiety are a bit different. 

  1. Situation anxiety occurs with specific circumstances, like fireworks or thunderstorms. Otherwise, your dog doesn’t display signs of anxiety.
  2. Chronic anxiety is when a dog is anxious all the time, often without a discernible outside circumstance. Dogs with chronic anxiety can also experience situational anxiety.

Ways to Prevent and Help Anxiety in Dogs

There are a variety of ways to prevent and treat anxiety in dogs. Here is a list of recommended treatments for your anxious pup.

  1. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends talking to your vet to come up with a plan of action for treating anxiety in your dog. “Your veterinarian can help you identify the type of anxiety your dog suffers from and the possible causes and triggers.”. Also, your vet can rule out whether or not there is another underlying health condition that is triggering the anxiety. Make sure you talk about preventative strategies with your vet. Your vet may also recommend medication for your dog’s anxiety. SSRIs and antidepressants, like fluoxetine and clomipramine, are sometimes prescribed for dogs with anxiety. Your vet may prescribe medication for daily or situational use. For example, if your dog with chronic anxiety has a hard time with thunderstorms, your vet may prescribe an as-needed medication like benzodiazepine to take during a thunderstorm in addition to a daily antidepressant.
  2. Training and counterconditioning are other options for treating anxiety in dogs. Counter conditioning’s goal is to change your dog’s response to the stimuli that are causing anxiety and replace it with a more desirable behavior like focusing on you, sitting, or laying down. Another strategy is desensitization. This is where you slowly introduce the dog to the source of anxiety, “preferably in small doses and at a decreased intensity.”. Rewarding positive behavior with treats and affection after being introduced to the anxiety stimuli can help reduce your dog’s anxiety. 
  3. Nutrition can play a role in anxiety, so consider giving your dog supplements like Omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium. Omega-3s are good for the nervous system, and there is some research showing it is helpful for dogs with anxiety. Another helpful nutritional supplement to consider is magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in muscle health as well as in nervous system function, and there is a study showing that magnesium supplements should be considered when a dog is traveling or in a new environment, e.g. under stress. Be sure you choose supplements that are made for dogs, as there are often additional ingredients in human supplements that can be harmful to your pet.
  4. One other way to treat anxiety in your dog is to make sure he or she is getting enough playtime and exercise. Playtime can ease boredom and enough exercise can reduce nervous energy. Try to make a walk and playtime into a self-care activity for yourself. Try focusing completely on the moment for however long playtime is and enjoy your time outside with your dog during walk time. 
  5. Does your dog have its own space? Making sure your dog has a bed all his own, or perhaps even a kennel (as long as it doesn’t stress your dog out more), can be an effective way to reassure your anxious pup.
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