Updated - Oct 15th, 2022
Does your pup get anxious when you’re leaving for work in the morning? Or when you return home after a long day, do you discover your dog has peed or pooped in the house? Do they often avoid eye contact or hide when you try to look at them? If so, your dog may be experiencing anxiety.
Just like their human companions, dogs can experience anxiety. Whether you have just adopted a new and energetic puppy, or have an older dog who has adapted to your constant presence, anxiety affects each dog differently. If left untreated, their anxiety can develop into an anxiety disorder, and lead to other behavioral issues that are unhealthy and potentially dangerous.
We all know too well how stress makes us feel, and we certainly want to help alleviate our pet’s stress, too. If you have a dog who suffers from anxiety, or are worried about your pup’s overall wellbeing, don’t worry: dog anxiety can be managed. Here, we outline what might be causing your pup’s stress, and how you can support your anxious dog and promote a happier life for them.
What does anxiety in dogs look like?
As a dog owner, you know your pup better than anyone, and sometimes it might seem like their anxiety comes out of nowhere. Other times it’s obvious what’s causing your dog’s anxious reaction, and you’re able to detect what’s triggering their abnormal behavior by closely monitoring their body language. Typically, their anxiety is brought on by a change in their routine, environment, or activity – and some of the most common causes of dog anxiety are fear, separation, and aging.
What are signs of anxiety in dogs?
More than 70% of dogs display signs of anxiety. In addition to a tucked tail and avoidance of eye contact, signs of stress and anxiety in dogs include:
1. Pacing or shaking
A lot of dogs shake when they’re in stressful situations, like visiting the vet. They may also walk in a repeated path around the vet’s office, similar to how people may pace when in uncomfortable or stressful situations.
2. Whining or barking
Dogs are pretty vocal animals, and their barking may become intensified when they’re under stress.
3. Yawning, drooling, and licking
Dogs yawn when they’re tired, bored, and stressed. This type of stressful yawn is more prolonged and intense than a sleepy yawn, and they may also drool and lick excessively when they’re nervous.
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4. Changes in eyes and ears
Like people, stressed dogs have dilated pupils and will blink rapidly, and may even open their eyes really wide and show more sclera (white) than usual.Their ears also might pin against their heads, causing them to appear startled.
5. Changes in posture
If a healthy dog with no orthopedic problems shifts their weight to their rear legs, they may be exhibiting stress. They may also tuck their tails or become quite rigid.
Shedding increases when a dog is anxious, although this is less noticeable in outside settings.
Dogs pant when they’re excited, stressed, or when they’re cooling themselves down. If your dog is panting but has not been actively exercising, they may be experiencing stress.
8. Changes in bodily functions
Dogs’ nerves can cause the sudden urge to go to the bathroom. If they urinate shortly after meeting a new friend, they may be marking their territory and reacting to the strain. Other stress indicators include refusal of food and loss of bowel function.
9. Avoidance of displacement behavior
In stressful situations, dogs may “escape” to focus on something else. They may sniff the ground, lick themselves, or simply turn away.
10. Hiding or escaping behavior
Dogs grow attached to their owners, and will often hide or move behind them to hide in stressful situations. They may even nudge them to prompt them to move along, and may engage in diversion activities such as digging, circling, or slinking behind a tree or parked car.
Dogs can’t tell us when they’re stressed, and the signs of anxiety are often subtle and can sometimes mimic normal behaviors. A dog may exhibit one or more of these behaviors periodically, which can be normal in uncomfortable situations. However, if your pup exhibits many of these symptoms at the same time, it may become a problem, and lead to a constant state of anxiety.
What causes anxiety in dogs?
The most common reasons for anxiety in dogs is abandonment, fear of being home alone, loud noises, traveling, and/or being around strange people, children, or other animals. They may have been forced into an unfamiliar and frightening experience, or been deprived of social and environmental exposure. Any illness or painful physical condition can also increase their anxiety, and contribute to the development of fears, phobias, and anxieties.
Their anxiety can manifest itself in multiple ways, from whining and excessive barking to shivering and whimpering, and even become hostile or aggressive when anxious. They may also lose their appetite, or become completely withdrawn if their anxiety is left untreated. Some forms of dog anxiety include:
1. Separation anxiety
Between 20% to 40% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, so it’s no wonder why it’s the most common type of anxiety in dogs. It can occur when your dog is separated from the person, or animal, they are most attached to, or a sudden change in routine.
2. Fear-related anxiety
This type of anxiety can be caused by loud noises, such as sirens, alarms, fireworks, or thunderstorms. In some cases, strangers or unfamiliar animals, visual stimuli like hats or umbrellas, and surfaces like grass or wood floors can also be triggers.
3. Environmental anxiety
It’s common for dogs to feel stressed in a new environment, This type of anxiety is presented as a fear of leaving the house, or going to a specific location, like the vet, a new dog park, or staying at a boarding facility.
4. Rescue/former shelter anxiety
Pets that have spent a period of time in a shelter often have memories of being abandoned and left there. They may also have experienced a traumatic event before they were taken into a shelter, or while they were there.
5. Social anxiety
This type of anxiety is presented as being anxious around different people or other dogs. This can occur from past trauma in rescues, or from not being socialized frequently. Dogs experiencing social anxiety typically bark, lunge, and show aggression when around unfamiliar people or animals.
6. Age-related anxiety
This type of anxiety affects older dogs, and can be associated with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). In dogs with CDS, their memory, learning, perception, and awareness begin to decline, similar to the early stages of Alzheimer’s in humans. This leads to confusion and anxiety in senior dogs.
Are some dog breeds more anxious than others?
We know that there are many context-related causes of stress and anxiety in dogs, but some breeds are more likely to suffer from emotional problems than others. This is because of their overall temperaments, personality, and daily habits.
- Border Collie – Border Collies are extremely athletic and thrive when around a lot of people and playing outdoors. For this reason, they’re prone to separation anxiety and don’t take well being left alone for too long.
- German Shepherd – German Shepherds also enjoy a lot of exercise and social activity, and don’t do well when left alone for too long. They can become nervous and upset, which can lead to depression.
- Cocker Spaniel – Cocker Spaniels are as cuddly as they are playful, and enjoy being engaged and played with all the time. Because of this, they’re prone to developing a high-attachment disorder.
- Basset Hound – Basset Hounds are very social dogs who need a lot of attention and love, and can easily suffer from separation anxiety.
- Labrador Retriever – Labrador Retrievers are family dogs, and if left alone for a long period of time, can easily get bored and slide into depression.
Ways to calm your anxious dog
Dogs are happy animals, and are naturally inclined towards things and people who excite them and satisfy their needs. So, for pet owners, helping your pup to calm down and make their living environment as engaging as possible is relatively easy to do.
In order to differentiate stress signs from normal behavior, you need to become familiar with your dog’s regular demeanor, to tell if he’s licking his lips because he’s anxious or because he wants a treat. A relaxed dog will have forward facing ears, a soft mouth, and round eyes, and distribute their weight evenly on all four paws. If your dog is stressed, you should remove them from the stressor, and find a quiet place for them to regroup. Resist the urge to overly comfort them, and make them earn a treat by performing an activity (sitting). Performing basic or routine commands can be comforting to a worried dog.
Once you have pinpointed the reason for your dog’s stress and anxiety, you can go about treatment management. The best way to treat your dog’s anxiety is by speaking with your veterinarian, but there are some techniques to help your dog calm down in an anxious situation, such as:
Exercise: If your dog has separation anxiety, the obvious way to ease their stress is to never leave them alone. This isn’t practical for most pet parents, so using exercise as bonding time and to tire out your pup is often an easy fix.
Treats/toys: Licking is a soothing activity for dogs, so giving them something healthy to lick keeps their brains occupied and helps them relax.
Physical contact: There’s probably nothing more soothing to an anxious dog than their owner’s touch. Pick your dog up, cuddle with them on the couch, and give them a good long petting session.
Massage: Massages not only relax and calm anxious humans, but dogs, too. Anxiety often causes tensing of the muscles and massage therapy can help to alleviate that tension.
Calming coats: Calming coats and undershirts apply mild, constant pressure to a dog’s torso, surrounding a dog much like a swaddling cloth on a baby. They’re recommended for dogs with any type of anxiety, whether induced by travel, separation, noise, or strangers.
A new friend: If your pup’s separation anxiety is caused by losing their furry friend, getting another dog may help.
Training and counterconditioning are strategies that change your pup’s response to the stimuli responsible for anxiety, usually by replacing the anxious or aggressive behavior with a more desirable behavior, like sitting or focusing on their owner. Desensitization is another training strategy, where the owner slowly introduces the dog to the source of their anxiety in small doses and at a decreased intensity. Repeated exposure and rewarding positive behavior can go a long way towards managing your pup’s anxiety.
If your pup becomes consistently stressed, and is exhibiting high-level symptoms, see your veterinarian immediately to rule out possible medical issues. Sometimes, dogs show symptoms of anxiety because they’re sick, which can lead to further medical complications. Your veterinarian may refer you to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist to evaluate stress-related issues. In more extreme cases, they will prescribe anxiety-reducing medications if appropriate. They will also be able to help you determine if their anxiety is situational, or if it’s becoming an overwhelming issue.
Your veterinarian will also be able to help you come up with a treatment plan, through a combination of training, preventative strategies, and in some cases, over-the-counter or prescription medication. They may also refer you to a professional dog trainer to help you choose the best approach for your anxious dog.
What happens when anxiety in dogs goes untreated?
It’s important to treat a dog’s anxiety before it reaches dangerous levels. Emotional health issues in dogs can have a detrimental effect on their quality of life, as well as the lives of their pet parents. If you notice any early signs of stress and anxiety in your pup, consult your veterinarian. Many pet owners assume their dog will grow out of it, which can lead to bigger problems.
Most of all, don’t get frustrated with your pup if they’re acting out and behaving this way. They’re expressing themselves, and most likely are just as confused and worried about their anxiety as you are. And remember that stress isn’t always bad. Fear prompts us to avoid potentially dangerous situations, so stress may actually be a protector.
As we have learned, anxiety can crop up for a number of reasons. That’s why Pumpkin’s dog insurance plans can help cover eligible bills for behavioral issues like anxiety that may develop in the future, so you can say “yes” to the best care possible.