Understanding, Preventing and Treating Anxiety in Dogs
With more dogs than ever being diagnosed with symptoms of anxiety, it begs the question: is anxiety becoming more common in pets, or are we just getting better at recognising it?
With the first week of May being Dog Anxiety Awareness Week, the North Road Vet team is here to shed some light on the topic of canine anxiety - what causes it, how to reduce your pet’s likelihood of developing it, and how it can be treated.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is when a dog anticipates danger and acts fearfully, even without an obvious cause or actual, significant threat. It may occur in specific situations (e.g. separation anxiety, where a pet becomes distressed upon being separated from its owner), or may be generalised, where a pet shows almost constant signs of anxiety regardless of the situation.
Why are we diagnosing anxiety in dogs more often than we used to?
We are likely diagnosing more pets with anxiety for two main reasons.
Firstly, our society as a whole has developed a greater understanding and awareness of anxiety as a potential mental health issue. Our pets are family members, and as such it’s natural to be vigilant about similar issues in them too. Additionally, many pet owners have spent far more time at home with their pets in the last few years than ever before, so are more likely to be noticing any behavioural changes in their pets.
Secondly, it is likely that there actually are relatively more anxious pets nowadays. This may have to do with:
- Reduced socialisation opportunities (positive experiences with new people, situations and environments) for dogs during the COVID pandemic
- The increasing popularity of certain dog breeds that may have a tendency towards being “highly strung”
- Changing lifestyles and behavioural expectations for dogs
What causes a dog to develop anxiety?
A dog’s temperament is a combination of their breed and individual genetics, and the influence of their early experiences and environment.
Anxiety is a moderately heritable trait from parent to offspring, so anxious parent dogs are more likely to produce anxious pups. Additionally, particularly negative experiences or a lack of proper socialisation at a young age increase a puppy’s likelihood of growing into a fearful, anxious adult.
How might I recognise anxiety in my pet?
Dogs suffering from anxiety may display symptoms such as:
- Hypervigilance (“jumpiness”)
- Crouched body posture
- A tucked-under tail
- Flattened ears against the head
- Pacing or evasive behaviour
- Reduced appetite or symptoms of gut upset
If pushed, anxious dogs may enter “fight or flight” mode, involving escape attempts or aggressive behaviours (e.g. growling, snapping or biting).
Can I do anything to prevent anxiety in my new puppy?
You can improve the chances of your pet growing up to be a confident, calm adult by selecting a non-fearful puppy, and raising it thoughtfully.
If you’re buying a puppy, it’s best to inspect the breeding premises and meet the parent dogs to ensure that they have friendly, confident personalities and that the pups will be born into a situation where they’ll receive lots of positive human interactions and handling.
After you’ve welcomed your new four-legged family member into the household, ensure that you provide them with lots of calm, happy socialisation experiences, where they are exposed to new people and experiences in a positive way, without overwhelming them.
This is particularly important prior to 12-16 weeks old, but can have significant effects on future behaviour even up to 6-8 months of age. Have a chat with our team regarding the safest ways to socialise your pup prior to the completion of their vaccination courses.
Can anxiety be treated?
If you suspect anxiety in your pet, it’s recommended to consult our veterinary team promptly, so we can start treatment early on to help ensure the best results.
Depending on the pet’s particular condition, we may recommend measures including:
- Limiting exposure to any situations that are triggering the pet’s anxiety (e.g. arranging doggy daycare or a pet-sitter temporarily for dogs with separation anxiety)
- Creating a stable environment with predictable routines of feeding, exercise and training for the pet
- Avoiding any punishment of the pet’s anxious behaviours
- Starting a program of behavioural modification with a qualified behaviourist who utilises positive (fear-free) techniques to “recalibrate” the pet’s response to anxiety triggers and improve their confidence
- Short- and/or long-term anti-anxiety medications
With the right help, many pets with anxiety can show significant long-term improvement.
For more specific advice and support regarding your pet’s behaviour, we’d recommend consulting one of our knowledgeable vets - you can do this by phoning us on (03) 9596 4804.