Anxiety in dogs is more common than you may think. Complaints about dogs and destruction or disruptive behavior, when left alone, is the number one behavioral issue. Sometimes it means that your pet may need to be taught house manners, but it could be symptoms of pet anxiety.
What is Pet Anxiety?
Pet anxiety can occur suddenly out of nowhere, it seems. But there is sometimes an underlying cause that can change your pet's environment, routine, or activity. There are several types of anxiety which your dog could suffer from:
Separation anxiety: When your pet is separated from you or other caretakers, or has a new schedule, or is moved to a new location, separation anxiety can happen. When a pet owner thinks of stress in their pets, this is the first type they usually think of.
- Generalized anxiety: This type of dog anxiety often appears out of nowhere and doesn’t really have a trigger or cause. It can happen even in dogs who are well trained.
- Environmental anxiety: When this type of dog anxiety shows up, it’s as a fear of going out of the home or to somewhere specific, such as the groomers or the vets. Plus, environmental anxiety can be caused by a scary situation or loud noises like fireworks, thunderstorms, alarms, or sirens.
- Social anxiety: This anxiety shows up when your dog is around other dogs or different people. It can come from not being socialized enough, or if your dog is a rescue, a trigger from past trauma.
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Why Is Your Pet Showing Pet Anxiety?
When your dog shows anxiety, he may bark, howl, chew things up, defecate, urinate, dig, or try to escape. It could be that he needs to be taught house manners, but most times, it's your pet showing anxiety.
When you leave the house, and your pet starts to drool or show anxiety, then it isn’t house training that’s the issue. This is showing your pet has separation anxiety. When your dog tries to escape when he’s experiencing pet separation anxiety, the results are often extreme and can result in self-injury.
The usual reasons why a dog will show anxiety are fear of being home alone, fear of being abandoned, being around strange people, pets, or children. Also, loud noises or traveling can be an issue. Plus, dogs that have been neglected or abused will suffer from anxiety.
Common Symptoms of Pet Anxiety
Reading the body language of your pet is the best way to tell if your nervous dog has anxiety. There are different types of signs and symptoms of dog anxiety, but body language is the best giveaway.
The signs can be subtle such as an overreaction when your pet has a change in location, social situations, or are around unknown people. The symptoms can be something as simple as barking, be overreacting, or just not eating.
Some pets will defecate or urinate when separated from their owners or when left alone. Your pet may bark or howl when by their selves. This type of howling or barking isn’t triggered by anything but being left alone.
Some dogs, when they are left alone, will become destructive. They chew on windowsills, door frames, or objects. Your dog can dig at doorways, destroy doors, or household objects when left by themselves. Self-injury can occur, ranging from cut and scraped paws to broken teeth to damaged nails.
Your dog could begin to pace, walk, or trot in a specific pattern when left alone. Some dogs will walk back and forth while others will walk in a circle. Some nervous dogs will even eat their own excrement when left on their own.
Some dogs will walk around with their ears back or tails tucked. Or they may shake or tremble, drool or become aggressive. Your pet may start to hide behind furniture or in a corner when he sees you’re going to leave.
If any of these behaviors are performed in the presence of the owner then pet separation anxiety isn't the issue, but it's a behavioral issue.
Other Behavior Issues to Rule Out
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if your dog has anxiety or behavior issues. It’s because some behavior problems are similar to anxiety issues. Before deciding that your pup has anxiety issues, you need to rule out behavior issues listed below:
- Excitement or submissive urination: Often, a dog will urinate during physical contact, while playing, greetings, when being punished or reprimanded. These dogs will display a submissive posture when interacting. They may hold their tails low, crouch, or roll over, expose their stomach, or flatten their ears against their head.
- Incomplete house training: If your pet occasionally pees in the house, he may not be fully house trained. His house training could have involved punishment which made him nervous or afraid to pee when his owner is nearby or watching. Or his house training could have been inconsistent.
- Marking with urine: If your dog is urinating in the house, he may be scent marking. When a dog scent marks, he urinates a small amount of urine on a vertical surface. Most make dogs, and some females will raise a leg to scent mark.
- Juvenile destruction: If your dog is still young or in the puppy stage, he may engage in destructive digging or chewing when you’re away or even when you are home.
- Boredom: If your dog is bored, it's more likely that he'll destroy something. He's looking for something to do, so having various chews and toys can help with this issue.
- Excessive barking and howling: Many dogs will bark or howl to outside stimulation or triggers. The dog may bark or howl whether you're home or have left the house.
- Incontinence caused by medical issues: Some dogs have incontinence which is a medical condition that causes a dog to leak from his bladder. Dogs that have this issue seem unaware that they have soiled. Sometimes urine is voided when the dog is sleeping.
Incontinence can be from various medical issues such as a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, old age, hormone-related problems after spaying, neurological issues, or Cushing disease. So, before attempting behavior modification, check with your vet to rule out any medical issues.
- Medications: Some medication that your pet may be taking can cause house soiling and frequent urination. If your pet is prescribed any medications, please talk to your vet to see if they could be causing the house soiling issues.
Why Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety
There really isn’t any hard evidence why some dogs develop separation anxiety. It is shown, however, that dogs who have been with the same family from puppyhood are less likely to develop anxiety. Dogs that have been adopted from shelters or rescue groups are far more likely to develop anxiety.
The belief is the loss of a significant person or group of people in a dog's life can have an adverse effect and lead to pet separation anxiety. Other changes can also trigger the disorder to occur. Below is a list of reasons for pet separation anxiety in dogs:
- When a dog is abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or rescue, or given to a new family or guardian, it can cause separation anxiety.
- When how long a dog is left alone can trigger anxiety. For example, the owner going back to work after working from home during COVID.
- Moving to a new and unfamiliar residence
- If a family member moves or passes away and the dog was fond of that person.
How to Treat Pet Separation Anxiety
First of all, there isn’t a magic pill that cures dog suffering from anxiety. But there are some ways to calm your dog down when he’s in an anxious situation. Then there are ways to reduce anxiety long term.
If you see a high-level display consistently of symptoms, then discuss them with your vet to rule out any medical issues first. Sometimes when a pet isn’t feeling well, they may be sick.
Suppose the vet rules out any medical issues and agrees that your dog has anxiety. There are a few suggestions you can do to get your nervous dog to relax during an anxiety attack.
Toys and treats
A soothing activity for your dog is licking. So, give your dog something healthy to keep his brain occupied and help him to relax. You can give him a toy that can be stuffed with a treat, such as peanut butter. Licking the peanut butter out of all the crevices will ease his anxiety.
You can try working with him on trained behaviors to distract him. When you engage your pup with commands like sit, lie down, shake, etc., it will distract him. Your dog will be focusing on his commands instead of what’s making him anxious.
Create a safe space for your pup to go to when he wants to relax. If you go to a potentially stressful environment, be sure to take along his bed, blanket, or whatever he sleeps on. When your dog’s stress levels are low, practice rewarding relaxed behavior. When he’s lying all comfy in his bed, praise him and give him a treat. Then he will associate his bed with relaxing. It will provide him with a safe, relaxing space to go to when you leave the house or if he experiences any anxiety triggers.
Crate training is another way to make your dog feel safe. Many dogs use their crate as a safe space to retreat to when they don’t want to interact. But if you haven’t crate trained your dog, don’t introduce him to it if your dog is already anxious. Plus, crates shouldn’t be used for constriction or as a punishment. It should always be associated with treats and comfort.
If your dog is anxious, sometimes all he may need is a gentle touch. You could massage his ears or forehead to help him release tension. You can play music during the day too that may help him relax.
How to Fix Long Term Pet Anxiety
If your pup suffers from the anxiety that is mild to moderate, you can do a few things at home to reduce it. If these steps don't work for your dog, then you may have to look for a trainer who specializes in anxiety.
Desensitization: Figure out what has led up to your dog’s anxiety episode. After you identify the stressors, then start doing the activities in a relaxed time to desensitize your dog to them. For example, if your dog starts to get anxious when you put on your coat because he associates that with you leaving the house, then put your jacket on and just walk around the house. This lets your dog know that it isn’t such a big deal.
Another thing to do is to leave the house and walk outside without your dog. This will get your pup used to you not being home all the time. Increase the time outside slowly, so he becomes used to you leaving and then coming back.
This will start to reduce your pup’s anxiety over your leaving the house because putting on a coat doesn't mean you're going out the door. Your dog won't get anxious when he sees you pick up your jacket. But your dog also has had the time to experience your departure cues. This means you’ll have to put your coat on and sit or pick up your car keys and drink your coffee many times before your dog won’t be predicting what you’re going to do next.
During desensitization, your dog must never experience the full-blown version of whatever initializes his fear or anxiety. He needs to only experience the low-intensity version that doesn't scare him. If not, he won't feel comfortable and calm in situations that cause him to be upset.
Plus, most dog's anxious responses occur within the first 40 minutes he's by himself. So, as you’re conditioning him over the weeks, you’ll be increasing your departure by only a few seconds, depending on your dog's tolerance level of your absence. Once your pup can tolerate 40 minutes away from you, then you can increase the chunks of time slowly.
This means that during the treatment for separation anxiety, your dog can't be left alone except during the desensitization sessions. But there are options for this, so he isn’t left alone.
- You can have a family member stay with him or hire a pet sitter. Or take your dog to doggy daycare or to the sitter's house.
- All of your greetings should be conducted in a calm and reassuring manner. When you say goodbye, just pat him on the head, tell him goodbye and leave. When you come home, say hello to him, and then don't say anything else until he calms down and is relaxed.
How long it takes for him to calm down depends on how high his level of anxiety is and his temperament. To help decrease his level of excitement, it may help to distract him by asking him to sit or shake or lie down.
Counter conditioning: With counter conditioning, your pup will see that the triggers can be a good thing. When your pup is triggered, such as during a thunderstorm, give your dog a treat with each loud clap. Plus, pet him and tell him what a good boy he is being.
Physical contact: Physical contact is the most reassuring thing to do to soothe your pet. Try to figure out what is causing your dog to become anxious and stop the reaction by cuddling him, petting him, or picking him up.
Massage: You know how you relax while you're having a massage. The same thing will happen to your dog. Since anxiety tenses muscles, massaging those muscles will help to alleviate tension. You start at your pet's neck and work downward using long strokes. Try to keep one hand on your dog while you use your other one to do the massaging.
After enough practice, you’ll be able to tell where your dog holds his stress and be able to work on that one area.
Music therapy: Yes, music can soothe your dog too. Music can block out noises that bother your dog and create anxiety in him.
Calming T-shirts/Coats: When you put your dog in a calming T-shirt or coat, they apply a mild constant pressure on your pet’s torso. It surrounds your dog’s body like a swaddling cloth does to a baby. It's recommended for use on any type of anxiety induced by separation, noise, travel, or strangers.
Supplements: You can buy dog treats that contain helpful supplements for helping anxiety. These supplements contain thiamin, melatonin, chamomile, L-Theanine, or L-tryptophan. Some of the supplements include ginger to help dogs with sensitive stomachs. These supplements are usually recommended for general and travel anxiety.
Crate training: Crate training can be tricky. It’s great if your dog learns it’s a safe place to be when he’s by himself. By with some dogs, it just adds to their anxiety. To see how your dog does with being in a crate, monitor your dog’s behavior during the crate training session.
See how he reacts to the crate when you’re home. Suppose he starts to try to escape frantically, pants heavily, barks, howls or salivates excessively. In that case, your dog may not be the type to be crated. Instead of a crate, you could try to place him in a room with a baby gate across the entrance.
Physical and mental stimulation: For treating anxiety in your pup, physical and mental stimulation can help. If you exercise your dog’s mind and body, it can significantly benefit his life. Plus, it can decrease stress and provide the usual outlets for your dog's behavior. If your dog is physically and mentally tired out, he won't have much energy for anything else.
So, give your pet at least 30 minutes of running, walking, playing fetch, or whatever gets him moving. Try to exercise right before you have to leave him alone. This might help him to relax and get some rest while you’re gone.
Take your dog on different routes when you walk him. New routes and different places will let him experience new scents and sights. If your pet likes other dogs, take him to a dog park and let him run off-leash.
Supply him with lots of food puzzle toys and stuff them with delicious treats. A puzzle toy and items for chewing will encourage his attention to something fun when you leave. Or you can hide small piles of his kibble or some treats around the house when you leave. Your dog can spend time sniffing them out and then eating his reward.
Professional training: Sometimes, what's going on with your pet is beyond what you can do for him. That's when you need to call a professional trainer. There are some trainers that even specialize in anxiety disorders and stress. These are called Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB or ACAAB or even a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Anxiety in your dog doesn't have a quick fix, and it's not an overnight switch that can be flipped on. One training session won’t give you the results that are needed. It may take a long-term approach that the specialist may need to take with your pup to get the necessary results. But with training that’s consistent and dedication on your part, your pet will overcome his anxiety issues.
Remember not to get frustrated with your pet if he is having anxiety issues. It’s not your pet’s fault, and he is expressing his anxiety in his own way. Don’t scold or punish your pet. His behavior isn't because of spite or disobedience. Your pet is in distress.
Your dog has anxious behaviors because he’s left alone and doesn’t know how to cope. If you punish him, you’ll only make the problem worse and make your dog and the problem much worse than it already is.