Canine anxiety has several potential causes, creating short-term and long-term anxious reactions.
Signs of anxiety in dogs vary between pups, and the presentation of these signs ranges from mild to severe.
There are several ways to address signs of anxiety in dogs, giving relief to both dogs and owners.
Does your pet hide under the bed during thunderstorms, bark at strangers, or tear up the house when you're not home? These are all signs of anxiety in dogs and may mean your dog is anxious.
There are many causes capable of triggering anxiety, and signs of anxiety in dogs tip pet parents off that something is bothering their pet.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a subcategory of fear, categorized as a fear, uneasiness, or dread of current or future events. What sets it apart from other types of fear is that the perceived threat is not always present; rather, it's the anticipation of a threat beforehand, regardless if there's actually any danger.
Chronic anxiety is a disorder that impacts the mental health and overall quality of life of pets. Knowing the causes and signs of anxiety is essential to ensure pets have the best quality of life possible.
Common Causes of Anxiety
With the definition of anxiety established, what causes it? The American Kennel Club (AKC) cites causes of anxiety that break down into three main categories: age, separation, and fear.
Of the contributing factors, age may be the one that comes as most of a surprise. However, changes associated with aging -- especially cognitive changes or decline -- make dogs more easily startled, nervous, or scared. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs, which presents similarly to dementia or Alzheimer's in humans, is another factor that heightens anxiety in affected dogs.
Cases of separation anxiety in dogs have surged in recent years, largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before 2020, experts estimated that around 14 percent of dogs suffered from separation anxiety. However, after the onset of the pandemic and with people returning in droves to work outside the home in 2022 and 2023, the condition has become much more common.
Dr. Valarie V. Tynes (DVM, DACVB, DACAW), a veterinarian specializing in veterinary behavior, stated in a 2021 article published by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA): "Some of these new 'pandemic pups' may have never experienced separation from their owners. Many owners working from home will have spent much more time than usual with their pets, and even pets who were in homes prior to the pandemic may be in for an abrupt shock when their owners go back to working away from home."
Fear is a natural response to unfamiliar situations or stimuli; there's no limit to what those may be. Dogs can experience fear from any stimuli: loud noises, strange people, new environments, specific contexts like vet visits, or even an unusual floor texture.
Situational vs. Generalized Anxiety
The duration of anxiety breaks down into two categories: situational and general.
Experts regard situational anxiety as a normal reaction to stressful and scary situations. Dogs don't have a way to talk about their feelings, nor do people have the ability to communicate with their dogs why something isn't as scary as the dogs think.
Generalized anxiety, on the other hand, persists regardless of the appearance or absence of these situations and stimuli. A dog with generalized anxiety always or almost always exhibits some sign of anxious behavior.
A dog's overall health can also impact whether or not they are anxious. Suppose an ordinarily mild-mannered dog suddenly becomes anxious with no noticeable trigger. In that case, it's worth a trip to the vet to make sure the dog is not suffering from the onset of a disease or illness.
Read on to see what behaviors to look out for that indicate anxiety.
Common Signs of Anxiety
Signs of anxiety in dogs manifest in several different ways, depending on the dog's personality. Some dogs tuck their tail and run in response to stressful or anxiety-inducing situations, while others become more reactive or aggressive.
Symptoms alone don't necessarily mean your dog has anxiety -- often, it's more about the repetitiveness or excessiveness of the behavior than the behavior itself. This list is not comprehensive but a compilation of some of the more common signs of anxiety in dogs.
Who doesn't love kisses from their dog? They're often a sign that your dog really likes you. Dogs also lick themselves to keep clean, so why is licking a problem?
Licking acts as a soothing mechanism for dogs and also alleviates physical pain. However, a dog excessively licking parts of their bodies can cause hair loss and make these patches red and raw, leaving them irritated and prone to infection.
Additionally, some dogs don't stop at licking their own bodies. Some dogs lick floors or other surfaces -- which sometimes include their owner.
More dogs in the USA go missing around the 4th of July holiday than at any other time of year. Why? It's pretty simple -- with all the loud noises from the fireworks, dogs across the country panic and try to find a safe place to hide.
Dogs follow their instincts when looking for a safe, comforting hiding place. A dog's safe place is anything from under the couch to behind their owner.
Reactivity and Aggression
As a type of fear, anxiety plays into a dog's "fight or flight" response. This is potentially the most dangerous sign, as fear-based aggression can lead to a dog lunging at or biting someone else.
Barking and Whining
Fear-based barking typically develops as a response after a traumatic event. Dogs may also bark and whine to get their owner's attention or when vying for social interaction.
Restlessness and Pacing
Similarly to people, dogs have a hard time settling down when they're stressed. As a result, they pace. Pacing for short periods typically isn't an issue. Taking note of when your pet paces can help determine what is triggering the anxious response.
Every pet parent dreads the thought of coming home to find their furniture destroyed by a bored pup. Destructive tendencies are also a sign of anxiety. Chewing relieves stress for dogs, and something with their owner's scent is especially comforting. Additionally, dogs attempting to escape loud noises may chew on baseboards, door jambs, and window frames.
When people want to teach their dog to "shake," they generally mean with their paw -- not their whole body trembling in fear. Tremors vary in intensity, depending on how scared or anxious the dog is at the moment.
The good news, it's easy to tell when a dog starts to relax with this particular sign. Dogs "shake it off," like when they shake after getting wet, which helps reduce stress levels.
Panting or Drooling
Dogs pant to cool themselves down, and several large breeds are notorious for producing copious amounts of drool. Dogs pant as a "calming signal," with the dog trying to communicate to others that they are not a threat.
Urinating and Defecating in the House
Admittedly, it takes a fair bit of consistent training to housebreak a dog, but a dog with this training still using the house as their personal toilet is a sign of trouble.
Barring illness, improper elimination is a common reaction for dogs in stressful situations, such as at the vet. If it only happens when the owner isn't at home, it's possibly an indicator of separation anxiety.
"Coprophagia" is a fancy word for something decidedly not fancy -- eating poop. It's a compulsive behavior in which a dog eats either their own feces or that of other animals.
This behavior evolved in canine ancestors to cope with periods of starvation. In the 21st century, most pet dogs aren't starving but continue the behavior regardless, as a potential sign of food insecurity, past trauma, or other anxiety.
Most Anxious Dog Breeds
Any dog can experience anxiety -- but are there breeds more prone to anxiety than others? Yes, absolutely. No one dog breed dominates the top of the list for this superlative. Instead, the prevalence of anxiety in a given breed appears to vary based on the trait or trigger, according to a study conducted in 2020 looking at 13,715 different dogs across 264 breeds.
Noise Sensitivity: In the study, noise sensitivity was the most prevalent sign of anxiety. The highest-ranking breeds include the Lagotto Romagnolo, mixed breeds, and Wheaten terriers.
Fear: Fear was the second-most prevalent sign from the study, with Spanish water dogs, mixed breeds, and Shetland sheepdogs taking the lead. The study also showed that female dogs demonstrated a higher level of fear of strangers than males.
Fear of Surfaces: Fear of surfaces and heights appeared most in rough collies, mixed breeds, and miniature schnauzers.
Aggression: Aggression towards strangers was most common among miniature schnauzers, mixed breeds, and German shepherds. The study also showed that male dogs displayed aggression as a sign more often than females.
Hyperactivity: Hyperactivity and impulsivity rates were highest among mixed breeds, German shepherds, and Spanish water dogs. Several working-type dogs also ranked highly on the list.
Stereotypy: Stereotypy, or the excessive repetition of behaviors, can occur across multiple behaviors, such as tail-chasing, compulsive staring, and vocalizing. Dogs at the top of these lists include Staffordshire bull terriers, border collies, and Wheaten terriers.
While the study mentions mixed breeds ranking highly across several categories, this does not mean all mixed-breed dogs are more prone to anxious behavior. Instead, their tendencies relate most to the breeds they come from.
Treating Your Dog's Anxiety
As pet parents become more conscious of their dog's mental health, the market for anxiety treatment options grows. Plenty of options exist to help anxious pups of all ages.
Calming treats and supplements have become increasingly popular, employing various ingredients to calm pets. Naturally-derived ingredients like amino acids, calming herbs, and even hemp and CBD are available for anxious pets.
During thunderstorms, firework shows, and more, calming wraps like the ThunderShirt wrap dogs snugly and create a sense of calm.
For more severe cases of anxiety, veterinarians can prescribe pets anti-anxiety medications.
A comfortable home makes for a comfortable pet. Remember that dogs need time to adjust to new spaces, and give your pet a place that's just for them.
Physical and Mental Stimulation
A tired dog is a less anxious dog. Additionally, exercise helps release excess energy buildup. A good 30-60 minute walk is an excellent way for people to exercise their dogs and themselves.
Fun and engaging dog toys provide mental stimulation for dogs.
Training and counterconditioning are essential to targeting the causes and responses to stressful stimuli. Both take consistent work, but the benefits are immense. Obedience training is also a huge mental workout for dogs and wears down their energy levels.
Counterconditioning essentially retrains how a dog thinks and reacts by working to associate the stressful condition with something highly preferred by the dog, whether that be treats or a toy.
Handling Separation Anxiety
Any of the above suggestions work; however, there are a few extra ideas to consider when working on a dog's separation anxiety.
Leaving and coming back isn't a big deal. Keep your cool during departure and arrival back home. Dogs pick up on their humans' energy, and it feeds them. If it's not a big deal to you, it's not a big deal to them.
Training and counterconditioning are especially helpful in treating full-blown separation anxiety but must happen gradually over some time.
Living Life Anxiety-Free
The signs of anxiety in dogs and their presentation are as varied and unique as dogs themselves. Knowing what's normal for your pet -- and what's not -- is the best way for pet parents to keep pups happy, address their anxiety, and give your dog the best life possible.
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