Recognizing anxiety symptoms in your dog and treating it properly is very important as anxiety can not only interfere with a dog’s emotional health but can also affect their physical health.
When a dog perceives a threat, the hypothalamus, a section of brain tissues, signals the production of certain chemicals to prepare the dog for fight or flight. This is good when there is an actual threat, but in dogs with chronic anxiety, it causes problems such as depression. The chemicals begin to weaken the immune system and can lead to heart disease.
There are two types of anxiety. Phobias where there is a reaction to something such as thunder or fireworks and others where the cause cannot be identified.
Where there are anxiety symptoms in dogs, often more than one anxiety exists such as a phobia for noise or thunderstorms. According to Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, the Chief Medical Officer at the Animal Hospital Association of America, dogs who have a severe fear of thunderstorms may exhibit trembling, hiding, barking, or destructive behavior towards furniture. It's important for owners of such dogs to understand that this behavior is not intentional or malicious. Dogs have a keen sense of hearing, and they can hear thunder from a greater distance than humans. They may also be able to sense a drop in barometric pressure as a storm approaches.
Anxiety Symptoms in Dogs
Anxiety symptoms in dogs may include barking, pacing, licking excessively, and urinating or defecating in the house.
During times of acute distress (such as thunderstorms or fireworks, for example), your pet may also hide under the couch or under the bed.
Anxiety takes the form of separation anxiety, noise and storm phobias, or an aggression response at people, other pets or unfamiliar dogs.
Symptoms associated with fear and anxiety in dogs includes:(5)
- Elimination in inappropriate places such as in the home
- Licking of the lips
- Tucking the tail
- Ears that are back
- Looking away from source of anxiety such as a threat
- Increased vigilance
Diagnosing Anxiety Symptoms
Your veterinarian will evaluate your dog's behavior and run tests to check things such as heart rate, digestion and frequency of urination (frequent urination could be an emotional problem). A blood test will be used to see if there are unusual levels of certain types of white blood cells associated with anxiety.
The veterinarian will determine is the anxiety is a healthy and normal short-term response. In dogs as as a species a short-term response is more about taking action or being alert in an unfamiliar situation, such as when coming near a stranger, an unfamiliar noise or a dog that might be a threat.
If anxiety occurs over a longer period of time such as signs of stress every time a pet parent leaves the home, then the dog may start to suffer from physical conditions or some form of disease that is a direct result of the anxiety which acted as a trigger.
Diseases related to anxiety in dogs include:
- Recurrent infections due to a repressed immune response
- Change in organ blood flow resulting in problems such as gastric ulcers
- Behavioral compulsions
It could even result in the dog having a shorter lifespan.(1)
Treating Anxiety Symptoms in Dogs
There are multiple approaches to dog anxiety treatment including:
- Behavior modification (avoidance of the trigger)
- Response substitution
Avoiding the trigger is utilized early in treatment. This is not always an option, particularly if the problem is thunder from a storm. It may also be difficult to avoid coming in contact with other dogs.
For noise an owner can try a room that is relatively soundproof or canine ear plugs.
For dogs that react to other dogs, going for walks in off hours when there are less dogs around could help.
Desensitization training involves reducing the intensity of any stimulus. For example, if a dog is fearful of strangers, then the dog can be kept far away from a stranger, reducing the stimulus. The dog can then approach the stranger slowly (vs. the stranger approaching the dog.). As this distance is reduced over time, the dog will become more comfortable being around strangers.
In this form of therapy a dog is trained to match a positive stimulus with an unpleasant response until they associate something positive. For example, providing a treat when it thunders associates something positive with a negative.
This form of therapy can be similar to counter conditioning in the same way a dog associates a treat with thunder instead of fear. In instances of aggression a dog will not attack a stranger if they encounter a tennis ball when they are near a stranger.
types of dog anxiety drugs are usually prescribed; psychotropic drugs and
pheromones. Drugs tend to work by either changing the levels of
serotonin (SSRIs clomipramine and the on-coming fluoxetine) or by
affecting the levels of dopaminergic activity (dopamine controls the way
neurons in the brain speak to each other).
The drug chosen will be based on the level of prolactin (PRL) in the blood. Anxious dogs showing a normal PRL value are significantly improved when treated with SSRIs (seratonin) when those showing a high PRL value are much sensitive to selegiline and worsened when treated with fluoxetine.
The pheromones DAP in dogs has helped in conjunction with therapy to change behavior such as changing the dog's environment, training and approaches that encourage relaxation.
Treating Dogs with a Thunder Phobia
If your dog has thunderstorm phobia, keep a close eye on the weather forecast and taking a few preventative measures when the weather is expected to turn stormy.
One is having a compression shirt known as a Thundershirt for your dog. Some dogs are soothed by pressure, so having them wear a compression shirt may help them respond more positively during a thunderstorm.
Additionally, dog owners may use audio techniques to calm their dogs. Some owners may turn on music during a storm to help desensitize their dogs to the sound of thunder. This method requires practice well in advance of a storm.
For dogs with severe thunderstorm phobia, ask your veterinarian about medications to help soothe them.(6)
There are medications available to address fear response in dogs. These include diazepam and alprazolam which can reduce fear related anxiety while increasing the dog's appetite.
There are also maintenance medications for dogs that tend to be always anxious (fluoxetine, clomipramine, buspirone).
There is also a anti-anxiety pheromone (Adaptil) that is available as a spray, collar or diffuser that can be effective for treating separation anxiety, car travel anxiety and fear of fireworks.
Owners have also had success with Essential oil of lavender (applied to a bed or bandana) and tablets that include ( blend of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense extracts (Harmonease, harmoneasevet.com) that can help with thunder related anxiety. Another option to try is the supplement Harmony which contains clinically proven nootropics and adaptogens that target anxiety.
(1) The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Dreschel NA. Appl Anim Behav Sci 125:157-162, 2010.
(2) How to Deal with Anxiety and Stress Responses: Dogs; Overall, Karen
(3) Separation Anxiety; Hillestad, Katherine DVM
(4) Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders; P. Pageat; Pherosynthese Research Centre, France
(5) Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog. Aloff B.—Wenatchee: Dogwise, 2005, pp 53,55,92-93.