What is anxiety and what causes it?
Anxiety in dogs is very common since they are social, emotional and responsive animals. They adapt easily to their surroundings and are mostly very friendly. They are also creatures of habit. Changes in the immediate environment or unpredictability in the environment cause deep anxiety as dogs associate these with violence or threats. Anxiety causes the dog to pant, display aggression, and generally have an unpredictable response to the stimulus and to you.
Common causes of anxiety in dogs
Anxiety caused by loud noises
Some dogs respond poorly to loud noises, while others don’t at all. These situations can be:
- Firecrackers: 90% of the time the onset and duration of such an event is predictable. For instance, during the Diwali or around festivals/ marriages, when there is a cricket match win etc. Only sometimes will it be totally random – such as a tyre burst, or if a transformer goes off!
- Thunderstorms: Again, it is seldom completely unpredictable- the incidents are more frequent and severe in the monsoon season. Though thunderstorms can come in any season it will take a few hours to develop and so it is not entirely unpredictable.
A dog suffering from noise anxiety will show symptoms such as hiding under a piece of furniture or in a dark corner, trembling, or tucking his or her tail. The dog will stop eating for the duration of the episode and will repeatedly try and escape the situation.
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Dogs are social and can suffer extreme separation anxiety if they are left alone for any length of time. A dog suffering from separation anxiety will show symptoms such as constant barking or howling, destructive behaviour towards the house or property, self-harm, climbing on the owner or other humans as neediness of petting. Do not abuse the dog on your return upon finding such behaviour.
Just like people, dogs need to learn to socialize. If a dog has not been socialized it will show symptoms of anxiety in the presence of other dogs or human strangers. The dog will either cower away or show extreme aggression.
A lot of anxiety is built around unfamiliar circumstances or people or context and associations that have caused stress on earlier occasions. For instance, a car ride can be an enjoyable experience for most dogs but taking a dog to a vet can turn the dog into a very anxious dog. A dog that has been abused with a stick will easily attack someone in the house it otherwise trusts just for picking up a mop (which to him is a stick).
Many dogs have breed-based or innate behaviours such as not responding well to its back or head being touched, someone approaching from the back etc. Exposure to such stimulus causes great anxiety and an aggressive response.
What you should do (and not do)
A dog suffering from anxiety will either get fearful or aggressive of the situation. An anxious dog displays their fear by escaping the stimulus — which they do by escaping the house or car, or hiding in dark areas and will tremble, turn fearful of touch. Such a dog will have unpredictable behaviour and may bite or turn aggressive if pushed.
Ensure that safety is key
A few critical factors to ensure your dog’s safety and yours:
- Learn the situations that cause anxiety: The stimulus that causes anxiety e.g. loud noises are not random and most of the time at which they occur are predictable — so be prepared.
- Secure the dog during the episode: It is essential for the dog to be secure at all such times with windows doors etc firmly secure. If the dog is outdoors e.g. in a car going to a vet or being walked make sure the dog is leashed and you hold the leash firmly.
- Be prepared for unpredictable behaviour: An anxious dog is in a fight or flight response. It might bite the hand if you try to touch it or attack you. Do not expect it to respond in the same way it usually does. It is best to approach a dog in this state with the respect you will give an unknown dog.
Anxiety can be reduced remarkably if not completely eliminated:
- Talking to your dog: The one thing that calms the dog most is your voice and presence so be with the dog and talk to your dog as much as you can.
- Removing the anxiety stimulus: In case of loud noises providing a quiet environment (e.g. a sealed-off room or bathroom) can help. Learning basic procedures such as clipping nails, cleaning ears, administrating oral even injectables with experience will reduce the number of vet trips and the resulting anxiety.
- Conditioning: All animal behaviour can be modified by building different associations. If the dog is scared of loud noises- playing music, physically being with the dog and talking to the dog helps to a great degree. If a dog is fearful of getting into the car, take it for small rides- get him a treat he loves on the ride. Same with going to a vet. If you intend to leave the dog at home for any extent of time start with very small durations (e.g. 10 minutes) and come back as if nothing happened. Then extend this duration. The dog should not associate you going away with great emotional responses- in your absence or return. Similarly, take the dog to play in a park or at a professional kennel just to socialize the dog from an early age.
- Products: Some products that people find useful to help dogs cope with anxiety include anxiety wraps or “thundershirts”, a dog crate for anxiety, dog beds for anxiety, etc. which might work for some dogs.
In extreme cases a medicinal intervention may be required.
- Relaxants: Several drugs used for anxiety in humans such as alprazolam (common brand: Restyl), anticonvulsants that relax muscle tension (common brand: Calmpose) have the effect of relaxing and animal. But please do NOT use these without your vet’s prescription on dosage and repeatability.
- Herbal formulations: Ayurvedic formulations such as Anxocare (brand of Himalaya drugs pet formulation) or Brahmi, a herb sold by multiple Ayurvedic brands could show a response when used for extended periods. Make sure to check with your vet for details.
A dog has the mental age and responses of a 5-year-old child. Treat him or her like that. An anxious dog needs a patient pet parent who will address the situation with understanding, love and affection.
Did you find this useful? For more medical, behavioural, or general advice on dogs, visit VOSD.
The information contained in VOSD Vet Advice™ is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical action which is provided by your vet. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information. For any emergency situation related to a dog’s health, please visit the nearest veterinary clinic.