A few months ago, my Mum came to me looking for some information for her friend whose furbaby was experiencing severe anxiety. Mental health, specifically anxiety, is an issue that is especially important to me. After going through the bad times of anxiety myself, it isn’t something that I would wish on anyone, let alone an animal that doesn’t understand what is going on. So began my research!
What started as a short blog piece, I have had to split into a two part piece.
Part One: ‘What is anxiety in dogs?’
Part Two: ‘How do we treat anxiety in dogs?’
Anxiety is a mental health issue that is widely known and treated in humans. What many people don’t realise, is that many dogs also have anxiety. Whilst anxiety in dogs is not the same as in humans, anxiety still causes emotional and physical symptoms just the same.
What is anxiety in dogs?
To start with, I want to differentiate between fear, phobia, and anxiety. Each of these are different, and experienced by both humans and dogs.
Fear vs Phobia vs Anxiety
Fear is an “instinctual feeling of apprehension resulting from a situation, person, or object presenting an external threat – whether real or perceived.” (Nelson)
Fear is a normal behaviour in both animals and humans, it prepares us to freeze, to fight or for flight. What can make it abnormal is its context. Most abnormal fears are learned fears, which thankfully means they can be unlearned.
Signs of fear in dogs can be:
Signs of panic can be:
A phobia is a “persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus” (Nelson). Nelson describes research suggesting that, once such an event has been experienced, any associating event, or even memory, is enough to generate a response.
A common phobia for dogs are fireworks. For instance, during the New Year’s Eve fireworks, many dogs panic, and many are also able to escape. You can imagine how those poor babies with a phobia of fireworks or loud noises were after the 9pm, the midnight, and all of the local fireworks.
There are many videos online of different tricks that furparents use to help their furbabies through the fireworks. One video that is similar to what we did with our Dalmatian when I was younger, was a furmumma putting earphones on her dog so he could watch her iPad and drown out the noise (we just put the radio on in the garage as it was the quietest part of the house!)
Anxiety is the “anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions associated with fear” (Nelson). Anxiety in dogs causes them to engage in repetitive or displacement behaviours. In humans, this can be seen by pacing, nail biting, or playing with our hair. Meghan Markle’s constant hair touching/flicking is an example of an unconscious self-soothing technique.
The most common anxiety behaviours seen in dogs with are:
Hypervigilance, which can be seen by ears erect and moving, alert eyes, and restlessness;
Bowel and/or bladder elimination;
Destructive behaviour, such as chewing almost anything, and digging holes;
Excessive vocalisation, such as barking, crying or howling;
Excessive grooming, such as licking or biting to the point of giving themselves lesions, rashes, hot spots or hair loss; and
Aggression towards people or other animals.
It is also important to note that, as with humans, anxiety can contribute to, or cause, additional illnesses. It can contribute to chronic digestive problems, skin sensitivities, and, in cats, urinary tract problems. It can also affect your baby’s immune function so that they are more likely to succumb to infections.
Rosenthal says in ‘Calming dogs with anxiety disorders’, that anxiety in dogs falls into three categories – separation anxiety, noise anxiety, and social anxiety. However, Shibashake also includes travel and confinement anxiety, and Dr Kathryn Hall of Aussie Mobile Vets also includes transitional anxiety:
Separation anxiety (the most common form of anxiety) is anxiety when a dog’s human leave them on their own. Dogs with separation anxiety display common anxiety behaviours, however, these behaviours won’t occur whilst their humans are around. In addition to these, excessive distress behaviour will usually be seen. My parent’s first dog, Noka, would steal their keys and bury them under the house so that they couldn’t leave her.
Noise anxiety is anxiety when a dog is exposed to loud or unusual noises such as fireworks, construction sites and even vacuum cleaners. Some dogs perceive these loud or unusual noises as danger or a threat.
Social anxiety is anxiety of social situations that involve humans or animals. This generally occurs when a dog wasn’t properly socialised as a puppy. A dog with social anxiety may become fearful of people, animals and their surroundings.
Travel anxiety is anxiety of travel, such as travelling in a car;
Confinement anxiety is anxiety when your dog feels trapped or confined; and
Transitional anxiety is an anxiety that your baby may feel when going through a life change such as the introduction of a new baby or pet to the household or moving house.
Why do dogs experience anxiety?
The root causes of anxiety in dogs can fall into one of four categories – emotional, physical, social, and breed.
1. Emotional causes can be:
An unfamiliar and frightening experience;
Abuse or other mistreatment;
A history of inability to escape from the stimulus causing the phobia and panic; and
Separation anxiety stemming from abandonment, multiple owners, rehoming or neglect.
2. Physical causes can be:
An illness such as hypothyroidism, encephalitis, thyrotoxicosis, hearing loss, and pre-diabetes;
A painful physical condition;
Aging, if changes related to aging in their body are associated with the nervous system;
Toxic conditions such as lead poisoning; and
A prolonged lack of mental stimulation and exercise.
3. Social causes can be:
Puppies that are deprived of social and environmental exposure prior to 14 weeks of age. Through exposing dogs to a variety of social situations and environments in this early stage of life, the likelihood of fearful behaviour is decreased.
Puppies that are taken away from their mothers too early (prior to 8 weeks of age).
4. Certain breeds of dogs are more prone to anxiety than others. These breeds are generally those that have both lots of energy, and are highly intelligent.
When do dogs commonly experience anxiety?
Nelson notes in ‘Extreme fear and anxiety in dogs’, that most fears, phobias and anxieties in dogs develop at the onset of social maturity, which can range from 12 to 36 months. After having dogs of different breeds (a Dalmatian and a Rhodesian Ridgeback), I can easily see why such a large age range is given.
Carey, G 21 November (no year), ‘What causes anxiety in dogs’, viewed 24 April 2018 https://www.petcarerx.com/article/what-causes-anxiety-in-dogs/701
Garrity, A 8 December 2017, ‘Body language experts reveal why Meghan Markle is always touching her hair’, viewed 8 April 2018 <https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/news/a47173/meghan-markle-touching-hair-body-language/>
Nelson, K, ‘Extreme fear and anxiety in dogs’, viewed 8 April 2018 https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/behavioral/c_dg_fears_phobia_anxiety?page=show
Rosenthal, C 15 April 2012, ‘Calming dogs with anxiety disorders’, viewed 24 April 2018 https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/article/Helping-dogs-with-anxiety-disorder-3478318.php
Shibashake, ‘Dog anxiety problems – How to deal with an anxious dog’, viewed 8 April 2018 https://shibashake.com/dog/dog-anxiety-problems
WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviourist, viewed 23 April 2018 https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/separation-anxiety-dogs#9>