By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
As anyone who suffers from anxiety knows, there are good days and bad days—and multiple triggers can bring on tell-tale (and often-intense) feelings of unease, worry, fear, or nervousness. And just as anxiety is a difficult and complex condition in people, it can be equally challenging in dogs (and cats).
Also, as is the case with humans, anxiety in dogs can have several causes, and there may be both genetic and environmental factors at play. Most treatment options address the environmental factors to help promote a dog’s sense of security.
Fears and Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The most common canine anxieties are fear- and separation-related.
Fear-related dog anxiety can be triggered by anything that your dog perceives as frightening or unnerving, like:
- new environments
- strange people or animals
- stressful situations like trips to the vet or groomer
- Sudden loud noises, like thunderstorms or fireworks
- Changes in routine/ daily schedule
Sometimes the triggers are things that don’t make much sense to us humans. I recall an old dog of mine (bless her sweet soul) would constantly freak out at the sight of one of our house plants—to the point where we had to give that plant away.
Separation anxiety affects approximately 25% of dogs. Pups that have this type of anxiety are unable to comfort themselves when they are alone or apart from their family members.
Dog Anxiety Symptoms
If your dog has anxiety, you’re probably well aware of it. They don’t make their condition much of a secret, like humans tend to.
Some of the more obvious symptoms of anxiety include:
- House soiling (peeing and pooping – diarrhea is typical)
- Destructive behavior (chewing on furniture, door jambs, window sills, etc.)
- Excessive barking and/or whining
- Drooling and/or panting
- Pacing and restlessness
Some dogs also may get aggressive, especially when owners are leaving or re-entering.
If your dog is acting atypically, even if you strongly suspect it’s anxiety related, you should take him to the vet. A thorough medical exam (including bloodwork) will help determine if your furry friend’s behaviors are truly caused by anxiety or some other physical problem (such as brain or thyroid disease or hormonal imbalances) or an acute reaction to a toxic substance he may have ingested (like chocolate).
Should Your Dog Take Anxiety Medication?
If the diagnosis is anxiety, your vet may send you home with medication—“doggy Valium,” if you will. Vets tend to use anxiety medications integratively – in conjunction with training exercises (which I’ll get into in a few). A vet, for example, may prescribe anti-anxiety drugs for a newly adopted shelter dog to help alleviate the stress of separation anxiety, as the family develops bonds with it’s new member.
As with most medications, there can be side effects – while some anti-anxiety drugs carry more serious risks like cardiovascular and respiratory depression, safer drugs are increasingly becoming more available. Whether to rely on pet anxiety medications is ultimately a personal decision. Just like with anything related to your pet’s health, you are the pet parent and you should go with what feels right for you and your fur family. As an integrative physician, my philosophy – for both humans is pets – is to use whatever works best with the least amount of side effects, and there are some cases where drugs are among the best treatment options. If you have a dog with anxiety, and don’t want to temporarily take the medication route, there are several more natural treatment approaches available.
How to Calm an Anxious Dog Naturally
Sorry cat lovers, but unlike most felines, dogs can be trained to work through their anxiety issues on their own, particularly in situations that involve separation anxiety. (Fear and phobias are a different story.) To help a dog with separation anxiety, you want to ignore certain behaviors and praise others, which teaches the dog how to better handle the situation. Some things you can do include:
- Pretend to leave the house. Grab your wallet, purse, keys, and put your shoes on. Instead of exiting, though, stay by the door, or briefly go outside and walk back inside immediately. This teaches your dog that when you leave, you will come back. As your dog adapts, increase the amount of time you stay outside before coming back in. This is a core step in treating separation issues. Veterinary behaviorists refer to this as “desensitization.”
- When your dog is expressing anxiety symptoms like whining or barking, ignore him until he calms down and stops the negative behavior. Then praise him and give him affection; training treats can help too.
- If you can, keep your home environment the same in your absence as when you’re home. For example, if you play music during the day, keep it on for your dog while you’re gone.
- Create a safe space for your dog (this works for cats, too). If he loves taking naps or relaxing in your sunroom, for example, then make that “his room.” It should contain a comfortable bed; favorite toys, balls, blankets, bones, etc.; and even a crate. (Contrary to popular belief, confinement in crates is not cruel. If used properly, crates actually give dogs a sense of security because they instinctively feel more secure in den-like environments.)
- Pet your dog right before you leave. A pilot study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed that dogs who were petted right before their owners left the home displayed calmer behavior and lower heart rates for a longer time period than dogs who were not petted before their owners departed.
Calming Pet Treats
For enhancing the effects of behavior modification training—or to help dogs deal with strong phobias or very stressful situations —calming pet treats are a great complementary option. They work by naturally supporting healthy brain and nervous system function. A high-quality treat provides nutrients such as vitamin B1 (thiamine) and L-theanine.
Thiamine is critical for energy metabolism and brain/nervous system function. Many dogs are deficient in thiamine because commercial dog foods usually don’t contain enough of this nutrient. A steady supply not only alleviates deficiencies, it normalizes nervous system function and allows dogs to better manage stress and anxiety.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea. Often used in stress-relieving supplements made for humans, it has equally effective anxiety-managing effects on dogs. Specifically, L-theanine helps the body produce compounds that calm mood and promote relaxation, such as dopamine, GABA, and tryptophan. One study found that along with behavioral therapy, supplementation with L-theanine led to a decrease in anxiety-related behaviors such as panting, drooling, lip licking, vocalizing, and compulsive behaviors in dogs with extreme noise phobia. (Another study published last January confirms L-theanine works in the feline patient as well.)
It’s important to note that calming pet treats aren’t a medication-free version of Valium or Xanax. You shouldn’t expect major changes after just one chew. Rather, like supplementation in humans, regular use can lead to gradual changes in behavior over time. If you need immediate, fast-acting relief, drugs are a better option. But if you know that a stressful situation is coming soon (say, New Year’s Eve fireworks), providing calming pet chews several weeks prior to the event can help keep your pup composed during the thick of it.
Many herbs that are popular stress relievers for people work in pets, too. Some of the more popular ones include chamomile, lavender, valerian root, and Egyptian geranium. You can find these herbs in sprays or consumable drops. Use as directed and if you have any question or doubt that it is safe or appropriate for your pet, talk to your vet.
Dog Anxiety Vests or Collars
Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) collars—can be used for all sorts of phobias and situations that upset your dog. They are easy to use, nontoxic, and have no side effects (other than the intended one!).
When a DAP collar is worn, the dog’s body temperature warms it up, which then diffuses synthetic pheromones into the space around him. Pheromones—chemical substances produced by mammals—are best known for influencing sexual behavior, but they actually affect all types of behavior. In this case, they promote a sense of peace, well-being, and reassurance.
In one study of 24 beagles that had noise phobia and were exposed to recordings of thunder, those that wore DAP collars had “significantly decreased fear and anxiety” and also hid far less than dogs that didn’t wear the collar. The type of stress-related behavior that DAP spray has been proven to decrease is barking/ vocalization.
Dog anxiety vests work a little differently. When worn, the vest applies pressure to the dog’s torso and chest, sort of like a tight hug. The pressure is supposed help the dog release endorphins, chemicals that encourage a sense of security and well being.
While little data exists about how effective dog anxiety vests actually are, anecdotal evidence is aplenty. And in humans, this type of cocoon-like pressure can be very soothing—just look at how quickly fussy infants settle down when swaddled. The average price of dog anxiety vests is $20-40, depending on brand and size, so it may be worth a shot to see if it helps your pooch.
I’m such a huge believer and proponent of earthing (or “grounding”) for stress and anxiety reduction in humans, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also work for your furry friend.
Grounding reconnects the body with the natural energy in the ground beneath our feet. We may not feel it, but the Earth emits an electrical charge that, when transferred through the skin, helps balance the autonomic nervous system (our “stress center”).
In order to reap these benefits, you have to be in direct contact with soil, water, sand, or stone for at least 20–30 minutes. What better way to accomplish this than to take your dog for a nice, long walk outside? Dogs naturally gravitate toward grassy areas to sniff around, explore, and do their business. If you live in a city, find a dog park where your dog can run around uninhibited, or a “human park” where you can play fetch with him (if he is trained to be off a leash, of course). With grounding, you often get a “2-for-1”, as it is likely your dog will get exercise, which is great for his overall health and sense of security.
Staying Calm During Stressful Times and around the Holidays
It’s important to note that our pets pick up on our stresses. If we are stressed out, our pets sense it and they become stressed as well. Try sitting with your pet and petting him, while breathing deeply – it can help you both relax and calm down! Here are some other stress management tips that can help.
And as the holidays near, it’s always worth the reminder: If you think it’s a stressful time for you, it’s probably twice as anxiety-inducing for your dog! Prepare your precious pooch now for the onslaught of house guests, the lack of order and routine, and longer-than-normal stretches where you’ll be out of the house. Make sure his safe space is set up well, and consider supplementing with calming pet treats now—before the chaos begins—so that your furry pal achieves the full beneficial effect when the real craziness really begins.
This blog has been reviewed and approved by veterinarian Emily Wilkinson, DVM.
- American Kennel Club. Understanding, Preventing, and Treating Dog Anxiety. Last accessed Dec. 5, 2018.
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