A closer look: Anxiety Disorders in Dogs
Showing signs of anxiety or fear in the face of a true threat is a normal adaptation of all mammals. When a dog’s response is disproportionate to the stimulus and interferes with quality of life, the behavior is considered an anxiety disorder.
The important distinguishing feature between an anxiety disorder and a normal fear response is the level of threat. With an anxiety disorder, situations that are not directly threatening to the dog are disproportionately perceived as dangerous. Sometimes even just the anticipation of a perceived threat triggers the anxious response.
Dogs often feel anxious in response to human emotions. If the dog’s owner seems outwardly anxious about a situation, the dog may learn to respond to that situation in an anxious manner. This learned behavior can become self-fulfilling when a well-intentioned owner becomes more anxious or obsessive about the dog’s response to the situation, further fuelling the dog’s anxiety. Through this process, the dog is conditioned to respond in an anxious manner, and in some cases, may extend this behavior to other stimuli.
Other dogs, loud noises such as fireworks, car rides, owner separation, and thunderstorms are some of the most common triggers of canine anxiety disorders.
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Although not actively life-threatening, anxiety disorders are increasingly common and often lead to concerning behaviors such as self-injury, destructiveness, and inappropriate urination and defecation. There are no standardized treatment protocols for anxiety disorders, so trial and error is required to determine what works best for the specific dog. Consultation with a veterinarian is important to optimize management and treatment strategies.
Some dog breeds require more stimulation and exercise than others, so these breeds are predisposed to anxiety disorders, especially when their lifestyle is poorly matched to what they’ve been bred to do.
Underlying health conditions also add to a dog’s baseline stress levels and leave them less capable of coping with potential triggers. Any type of health condition has the potential to increase baseline stress levels, but dogs living with chronic pain or inadequate nutrition are poorly positioned to cope with additional stressors.
Anxiety disorders may affect a dog’s overall health due to consistently increased stress levels.
The underlying cause of an anxiety disorder is a reduced capacity to deal with stress, resulting in dogs experiencing an overwhelming reaction to mildly stressful stimuli. A dog’s capacity to handle stress results from a combination of factors including genetic predisposition, environmental factors, health factors, and training.
Many of the health and environmental factors that contribute to an anxiety disorder are closely linked with the owner’s lifestyle. When the owner’s lifestyle and the dog’s genetic predispositions are at odds, anxiety disorders may be the result.
Stressful environmental factors include inadequate space to move, inadequate socialization, and inadequate mental stimulation. These environmental factors are more likely to impact dogs owned by individuals who work long hours with minimal time to spend with their pet.
Routines are another environmental factor that are vital for providing dogs with confidence and coping skills. Anything that disrupts a dog’s sense of stability - especially with regard to opportunities for exercise, social interaction, eating, and relieving themselves - is another potential source of canine stress.
In most cases, a combination of all the above factors contribute to creating anxiety disorders in dogs. New dog owners are best positioned to reduce the risk of their dog developing an anxiety disorder by selecting a dog breed appropriate for their lifestyle. To further reduce risk, professional guidance on training, exercising, and managing the dog is recommended.
Testing and diagnosis
Behavioral disorders in dogs have only recently been studied, so diagnosis and treatment protocols are not well-established. Diagnosis is typically based on taking a thorough history after a full work up has been performed to rule out any other underlying cause of the behavior.
Steps to Recovery
General principles of treatment include:
- Managing the environment and the dog to reduce triggering stimuli
- Making sure the dog’s needs are adequately met, including nutrition, exercise, and space
- Behavioral modification training
- Anti-anxiety medication
It is also important to make sure that the dog is otherwise healthy and has minimal stress. Increasing activity and providing outlets for stress such as obedience training, trick training, toys, or puzzles helps improve the dog’s overall quality of life, and allows them to better cope with stressful scenarios.
Treatment protocols often take several weeks to months to show a significant effect. Management strategies require frequent revision to adapt to the dog’s changing behavior and environment.
Anxiety disorders are life-long conditions in dogs. Appropriate management and behavioral training has the potential to significantly reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Finding a treatment plan that works often takes months, and full resolution of the symptoms is not expected.
Anxiety disorders are complex and linked to various root causes, and sometimes the cause is unknown or difficult to define. Although they cannot be prevented in all cases, pet parents can reduce the probability of their dog’s normal fear responses developing into a serious disorder.
Steps to prevention include matching household lifestyle to the dog’s breeding, providing sufficient mental and physical stimulation, and avoiding projection of human anxiety onto an otherwise healthy dog. Staying up to date with routine health screening will also help minimize the amount of physical stress a dog is under at any given time. Doing so helps to ensure the dog is within its stress tolerance limit should triggering stimuli present themselves.
Are Anxiety Disorders in Dogs common?
Anxiety disorders are common in dogs.
Treatment for anxiety disorders varies considerably depending on the severity of symptoms, but the general approach includes:
- Avoiding the trigger(s)
- Behavioral modification training
- Anti-anxiety medication