Anxiety in dogs: what you need to know

Anxiety in dogs is more common than we think.  Though there has been a huge upsurge in mental health awareness in humans (especially because of Covid), as vets we see many cases of anxiety and other mental health conditions in dogs that owners haven’t detected. Few appreciate that there is treatment available for anxious pets too. Dogs’ brains function in exactly in the same way as ours do and many studies have shown that they feel many of the same emotions, including anxiety.

Anxiety in dogs: what is it?

We have all felt fear at one point or another. Fear is an acceptable and useful reaction to a life-threatening situation and starts off the fight or flight response in our body. Feeling fear releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisone which enables us to react and escape, or fight our way out of a situation.

Anxiety is a more constant state of fear or worry. This means continuously raised adrenaline and cortisone levels. Animals that are feeling anxious will appear to be ‘highly strung’ and react to a higher degree than is necessary in many situations. Anxiety isn’t an appropriate response to life and can cause unnecessary worry and health concerns. It becomes very stressful for the animal to live in a constantly anxious state.

Anxiety  in dogs: what happens if it isn’t treated?

Consistently raised cortisone levels can have serious long term health effects. For example, dogs in a constant state of anxiety are predisposed to heart disease, epilepsy, diabetes and other illnesses. Chronic anxiety can also lead to depression. And in some cases, anxious dogs can become aggressive in an attempt to protect themselves from people or animals that make them feel threatened.

Any anxious person will tell you that their anxiety affects their quality of life and we know that animals experience the same emotions as what we do. Anxious dogs won’t experience joy and happiness to the same level as dogs that don’t struggle with anxiety. It is for these reasons that it is important to seek help if your dog is struggling with anxiety.

How do I know if my dog is anxious?

The symptoms of anxiety are quite varied and can include some of the following:

  1. Aggression towards people or animals
  2. Hiding away from new people
  3. Hiding away or reacting excessively when there are loud noises
  4. Panting
  5. Shivering
  6. Drooling
  7. Urinating or defecating in the house
  8. Urinating when new people come into the house
  9. Destructive behaviour
  10. Depression – withdrawal from the family
  11. Appearing highly strung
  12. Barking excessively
  13. Licking or chewing their feet/legs
  14. Lip licking
  15. Inability to settle: anxious dogs will often not sleep deeply for long periods, they’ll always be on high alert

Are there different forms of anxiety?

Yes there are!

• Generalised anxiety describes a dog that is anxious in most situations and isn’t coping well with new people or situations, loud noises and separation.

• Separation anxiety is a common form of anxiety. These dogs will struggle when they are separated from their owners and will often bark, howl and destroy property when the owners are out of the house for any length of time. Often these dogs are called ‘velcro’ dogs because they seem to attach themselves to their owners and they never let their owners out of their sight.

• Noise phobia is another common form of anxiety and often occurs during thunderstorms or fireworks. Other triggers can include loud household noises such as a vacuum cleaner, lawnmower or garbage truck.

• Severe, long term anxiety can lead to depression. These dogs are often harder to detect because they don’t really cause problems like an anxious dog would. But they are suffering in silence. If your dog is withdrawn, sleeps excessively, plays very little or not at all and doesn’t show interest in fun or exciting activities it is important to have them assessed by a vet.

What should I do if I think my dog is anxious?

It is absolutely essential to get professional help. It is unfair and unhealthy to allow these dogs to live in an anxious state; they desperately need your help. Firstly, make sure that you don’t use punishment in any form (shouting/hitting/reprimanding) because this will worsen their anxious state.

The next step is to visit your vet for a consultation. Sometimes there is an underlying health concern that causes similar symptoms or may be contributing to the anxiety or depression. The vet will also be able to assess whether or not the anxiety is severe and guide the next steps in the process.

In most cases, dogs will need medication as well as behavioural modification. This is similar to people struggling with anxiety: you will see a psychiatrist for medication and a psychologist to help you learn skills to deal with the anxiety.

Most GP vets will be able to prescribe anti-depressants which are used for long term treatment of anxiety and anti-anxiety medication to be used for particularly stressful events (e.g. thunderstorms). And then the vet will refer you to a qualified behaviourist to teach your family and your dog coping skills and ways to enrich and improve the environment so they can deal with their anxiety.

In particularly severe cases, or cases where there is aggression, your GP vet may refer you to a vet that specialises in behaviour medicine.

Treating anxiety is entirely possible and it improves your dog’s quality of life tremendously. Improving your pet’s anxiety will also benefit your entire family because their anxiety can impact your routine and household. It may take dedication and time to treat these dogs, but it is worth the effort to help these poor anxious dogs live their happiest lives.

Department of Health COVID-19 updates available at www.sacoronavirus.co.za

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