Owners of anxious or nervous dogs, this is the guide for you. If you're desperately seeking the solution on how to help a dog with anxiety, we've got some practical tips for you to follow.
With animals that have been domesticated for many generations, there’s been a shift in the way they show emotions. In the case of dogs and cats, they often mirror humans, behaving in ways that are so close to us that we think of them as another family member. This can make dealing with an anxiety disorder a big deal, writes Ameila Palmer.
Just like us, various anxiety disorders can affect your pet. These issues seem to be most common in dogs, with between 20% to 40% presented to veterinary behavioural specialists suffering from a disorder. However, many cat owners have had to deal with this particular problem too.
As a pet owner, you need to be aware of any changes in behaviour and environment. If you can keep a close eye on these two elements, you should be able to prevent an anxiety disorder from taking root and turning your loveable pet into a problem child.
By stopping anxiety-induced behavioural problems before they turn into habits, you can save your pet and yourself from facing a myriad of often-heartbreaking issues further down the line. You’ll also be keeping your pet happy, healthy, and in top form.
Why Dogs Get Anxiety Disorders
The way anxiety disorders develop in a dog or other domesticated pets are much the same way they would in a human. Anxiety is a reaction to stress or fear and can be brought about by changes. In a study that addressed anxiety in dogs, it was found that 72.5% of all subjects exhibited some form of anxiety-like behaviour. The majority of triggers were environmental factors that had been altered in some way or another.
As with humans, pets can be predisposed to anxiety due to their genetic makeup. That’s why some will weather massive changes to living situations without any problems, and others will get severely worked up when you move furniture around in the living room.
The early development and learning phase of a pet’s life, especially in a dog, can play a big part in whether or not they will develop an anxiety disorder. A puppy that’s properly trained and stimulated and raised in a safe, loving, consistent environment will be far less likely to develop anxiety even if they are genetically predisposed to it. This is why rescue pets are more likely to suffer from these disorders as they haven’t had the basic grounding from a young age.
The early factors that can cause anxiety in dogs include:
- Uncertainty in home life
- Not knowing when the next meal will come
- Lack of stimuli such as training and playtime
- Being left alone for long periods
- Unexpected, big changes to home life
- Physical and emotional abuse
If one or a combination of these factors is present in early life (under a year old in a dog or cat), the animal can easily develop anxious tendencies. These will become entrenched as habits in behaviour and are only likely to become more problematic as the animal gets older – if left unchecked.
Thankfully, with proper love and attention, you can ease your pet’s anxiety and teach them new behaviour over time. Yes, that’s right. We’re saying that you can teach an old dog new tricks!
How To Help A Dog With Anxiety: Start By Identifying Anxiety Disorders In Your Pet
Your pet may not be able to communicate with you in words, but their behaviour can tell you long tales if you’re paying attention.
When it comes to anxiety disorders, there are several telltale signs that you can watch out for. If you spot them early enough, breaking the cycle of stressor and reaction is much easier. This is obviously better for your pet and yourself.
The list of common symptoms of anxiety that you can watch out for includes:
- Restlessness and struggling to settle down
- Urinating regularly – especially in the house
- Panting as if it’s a hot day or the animal has been exercising
- Shivering as if it’s a cold day
- Barking and making a noise when left alone
- Running or cowering away from you
- Showing the whites of its eyes as if afraid
- Digging in the garden
- Destroying plants or furniture
- Not wanting to eat, even tasty treats
- Excessive licking or chewing on their own body
- Regular lip licking
The key is to watch out for behavioural changes. Any of the above could be a sign of anxiety but could also just be part of their general behaviour (a dog digging in the garden, for example). Additionally, the behaviour could just be an upset stomach (not wanting to eat) or stress on that particular day (like having someone in to work on the plumbing).
It’s when you start to notice that the behaviour is becoming regular or is heightened when a specific stressor occurs that you need to consider an anxiety disorder.
If you’re unsure, start making notes about the behaviour. In a couple of weeks, you should be able to tell if there is a habit starting to form and if you need to take action.
How To Help Cure Separation Anxiety – The Most Common Condition For Dogs
One of the biggest causes of anxiety in dogs is separation from others. They are generally pack animals and can struggle when left alone. Suppose a dog is particularly attached to one member of the family. In that case, they may show the signs of separation anxiety when that one person is away, even though they are surrounded by other people and animals.
Another element of separation anxiety is that the dog gets bored on their own. When a dog is intelligent and quite active, it needs constant and regular stimulation. The longer it gets left alone, the more likely it is to get destructive and start to chew something it knows it shouldn’t. This acting out is a common indicator, and it needs to be addressed quickly.
Separation anxiety can be combated by teaching your dog that it is not being abandoned when you go out. If you start with short trips away and ensure that you have left a treat or something for it to play with, you can slowly build up to extended absences with no incidents.
If they are still acting out, you may need to try an alternative approach, such as boosting their mood in one of these seven ways:
7 Mood-Boosting Ideas For Curing Dog Anxiety
- Create A Safe Space
Giving your pet a place that they can retreat into when they feel anxious can dramatically relieve their stress. This can be a comfy bed placed in a corner of a room where they feel safe or a kennel outside – anywhere they can be away from what is causing the anxiety and know that they can’t be stressed out even more.
Think carefully about where you create this safe space. It shouldn’t be in the general flow of the house, but it mustn't be completely isolated either. Your pet will want to be out of the way of what is causing anxiety but not too far away from you that it doesn’t know what you’re up to.
- Use Physical Touch
Just like with humans, physical touch can be incredibly soothing to a pet. When you notice them panting, pacing, barking, or shivering, give them some love and comforting attention.
A simple pat on the head or a scratch behind the ear might be enough. Alternatively, go in for a proper hug if that’s what your pet is used to, and if their anxiety seems to be ramping up.
- Give Them Plenty Of Exercise
Nothing beats the surge of endorphins from going for a walk or a run in your favourite place – just ask your dog! If your pet is prone to anxiety attacks, make a point of getting them out and exercising more often. The added stimulation of the activity and the sights and sounds of a space that isn’t their usual sleeping area will improve their mood no end. There’s a lot of truth in the saying that a tired dog is a happy dog.
- Plan Ahead
When you know that certain things cause unnecessary stress or trigger an anxious episode in your pet, think about ways to mitigate it.
For example, if a contractor is coming to work on your home and your pet doesn’t like strangers, get them set up in a room where they won’t be affected by the intrusion. Make a nice, safe space, give them some treats or a favourite toy that will keep them occupied, and only then let the contractor in. During this time, be sure to check on your pet frequently to remind them that they are safe, and you haven’t deserted them.
- Get Them A Friend
A lot of anxiety can be caused by being alone. With another dog, cat, gerbil, or rabbit around, your pet may be able to get over their anxiety a lot easier when an attack hits. In general, they’ll feel less alone and unconcerned about you not being there, as they have a friend. Another pet can keep them entertained and distract from feelings of stress and anxiety.
If you're not keen on getting another pet, you can always look into daycare or socialising options. Having a place to drop off your pet where there are other animals and humans can be a lifesaver if you need to go out for a long time or away for a few days. Your pet will have social stimulation, which will lessen the impact of you not being there. The socialisation aspect is also good for dogs that struggle with reading signs from other animals in terms of friendliness and willingness to play.
- Behavioural Training
The signs that your dog is feeling anxious or having an anxiety attack can become problematic habits. The behaviour becomes normalized if it’s left unchecked, and it can be challenging to stop it even if you remove the source of the anxiety. However, disciplining your pet when it displays the anxious behaviour is not a good way to deal with it.
It’s much better to distract the animal and change the way it associates anxiety stressors. For example, you can give your dog a bone to chew on when you go out for the evening. This is something it loves and will distract it from the fact that you aren’t there. They will start to associate you leaving with getting a treat, making the entire process far less stressful and less likely to result in an anxiety attack. This form of positive training creates good habits and teaches your pet that desirable behaviour leads to a reward.
Remember, it can be a slow process to break the behavioural habits and teach them that they don’t need to be anxious about something. You need to take it one step at a time and reward every little change for the better. It’s important not to let out any frustration you might be feeling at the process out on your pet. Animals, especially domesticated pets, will feed off of your emotions.
In some cases, you may need to include some form of medication in your pet’s treatment. This doesn’t mean that they will be on it for the rest of their lives necessarily. It’s not going to fix the problem, but rather help lessen the symptoms while working on the other ideas above.
If you have reached the point where nothing else is working, talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medication. There are several options, including CBD oils for dogs and other natural remedies. Whatever route you take, always ensure that the medication is for anti-anxiety rather than being a sedative. Sedatives can have the impact of making the problem worse as the animal becomes drowsy but not necessarily calmer.
Anti-anxiety medication can be used as a long-term solution or as a fix for specific events such as thunderstorms or fireworks. It all depends on what’s causing the anxiety and how badly it impacts the animal’s life. It’s important to work with a veterinary specialist to find the right solution for your situation and to monitor the effects on your pet whenever possible.
If you suspect that your pet is suffering from anxiety, start looking at ways to treat the condition as quickly as possible. An anxious pet is often an unhappy one. Knowing what signs to look for and how to help them cope can make for a much better life for both you and your furry friend.