Dog Anxiety:
Causes and Treatment

Dog anxiety means the dog is fearfully anticipating an unpleasant event. Symptoms can include pacing, spinning, peeing and pooping indoors, trembling, barking, excessive drooling, whining and destruction of objects.

Snapshot: Dog Anxiety
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.

  • Symptoms: Anxiety symptoms include pacing, spinning, peeing and pooping indoors, trembling, barking, excessive drooling, whining and destruction of objects.
  • Causes: Common causes or triggers of anxiety include the absence of the dog's owner and loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks.
  • Diagnosis: If your canine friend shows any of the above symptoms, the first step is to take him to the vet for a physical exam. Your vet will also want a history of your dog's health and behavior.
  • Treatment: Treatment depends on the cause of the anxiety. It includes desensitizing the dog to loud noises and downplaying the owner's arrival and departure—picking up keys, then sitting down rather than leaving and putting on your coat, then removing it without leaving. By making these actions routine, they are no longer the "big signal" that you are about to depart.

Causes of Dog Anxiety

A common trigger of dog anxiety is the absence of the dog's owner. This is called dog separation anxiety. Dog anxiety can also be caused by thunderstorms, fireworks and other loud noises. In addition, anxious behavior can result from lack of exercise or lack of interaction with the owner, a change in the household (visitors, new baby, change in owner's schedule), or if a dog is in pain or physically uncomfortable.

Diagnosis

If your canine friend shows any of the above symptoms, the first step is to take him to the vet for a physical exam. You want to be sure there is not a medical issue causing the dog to act peculiar. Your veterinarian will also ask you for a history of when the behavior began, any changes in the household, etc. So go prepared for a pop quiz! The information you provide is just as important as the physical exam! You have insight into your dog's personality, behavior and environment that no one else can provide.

Conventional & Alternative Treatment

The method of treatment for dog anxiety depends on the cause. Here are some suggestions on how to address dog anxiety based on the most frequent causes. In many cases, the most effective treatment will use a combination of behavior modification and anxiety medication (drugs or natural substances).

  • Absence of dog's owner(separation anxiety): If your canine friend shows some of the above symptoms when you leave the home, he/she is likely experiencing separation anxiety. The best way to address this particular dog anxiety is to use behavior modification and change the way you interact with your dog. Do not reinforce the anxious behavior by saying "good dog" or petting him. Have him sit first, then pet him. It's important that you--not your dog--initiate the contact.It is essential to keep your departures and arrivals subdued. Picking up keys or briefcase and putting on your coat may heighten your dog's anxiety because he's learned that these events signal your departure. Try doing these things without leaving: Pick up the keys, then sit down. A little later, put on your coat, wear it in the house a few minutes, then remove the coat. When you arrive home, don't show your dog attention until you've been in the house several minutes. Then, make it a controlled and quiet--not highly excited--greeting. Dog crates can be useful with some dogs--with others, it will make the dog anxiety worse. Because of this, try the crate when you have several consecutive days at home, such as vacation days or the weekend. Coax your dog into the crate with pieces of cheese or other "high value" treats so he learns going into the crate is a good thing. Leave him crated for a short time while you go outside to water the flowers or buy gas for the car. Build up to increasingly longer times in the crate. Sometimes leaving the crate in the bedroom will add to the dog's comfort, because this is a room that has a strong scent of you. If, despite this slow progression, your dog is freaking out while in the crate, go to plan B. Prepare an area in your home, such as the kitchen or laundry room, and make it dog-friendly, removing waste cans or any other item that may tempt the dog. If your budget allows, contact a professional dog trainer for assistance. Ask friends, relatives or coworkers if they can refer you to a good trainer. Like all professions, there are good and bad dog trainers. It's best to choose one based on referral rather than an advertisement. In the more severe cases, anti-anxiety drugs may be used in combination with behavior modification. The drug should never be used alone, in place of behavior modification. Clomicalm (generic name, Clomipramine) is frequently prescribed for dog anxiety. It normally takes 2-4 weeks to be effective. As with all drugs, there are potential side effects, including sedation, decreased appetite, diarrhea and vomiting. It can also cause increased seizures in dogs already experiencing seizures. Reconcile (generic name, Fluoxetine) is another commonly prescribed dog anxiety drug with side effects similar to Clomicalm. It normally takes 3 to 5 weeks to improve behavior. Both drugs can take up to 8 weeks to reach their maximum level of effectiveness.
  • Thunderstorm, fireworks, or other loud noises: Desensitizing your dog against the trigger noise is one route to take. For instance, playing a recording of a thunderstorm on a low setting while periodically giving canned food or a high value treat like cheese. Play the thunderstorm at increasingly louder volumes while offering treats or enticing your dog to play with his favorite toy, fetch a ball or take part in another activity that will take his focus away from the sound of the storm. While these methods alone may work, some dogs will need the required benefit of medication such as a tranquilizer.
  • Insufficient exercise and/or insufficient interaction with owner: If you have a job outside the home, making sure your dog has adequate interaction with you and adequate exercise can be a challenge. But these two factors are essential to the health and well-being of your best friend. A shortage of one or both factors can lead to behavior problems, anxiety and self-mutilation. If meeting your dog's needs means you must get up earlier in the morning or skip happy hour after work, then so be it. If you are not willing to deliver on this commitment, you should not have a dog.
    Walking your dog, teaching him to retrieve a tennis ball, agility training and basic obedience training are all great ways to bond while also providing the exercise he needs. If you can afford one, a treadmill offers an alternative to outdoor exercise when the weather makes walking difficult or even dangerous. Another idea for working in more quality time is to let your canine friend tag along with you on weekend errands, provided it is not warmer than 70 degrees outside if you are leaving him in the car--and be sure to crack several windows. But use common sense and make sure the errands will only keep you out of the car and away from your dog for a few minutes at most. For instance, picking up dry cleaning, buying a newspaper at the convenience store and buying gasoline for your vehicle are good dog-friendly errands.

My Experience

During the summer of 2010, our 11-year-old border collie mix, Sadie, became a victim of dog anxiety. We adopted Sadie when she was one year old and she had never, through her many years with us, shown any fear of storms. So we were not sure what to make of her anxiety attacks, frantically spinning in circles and running around the room barking at the ceiling. Sometimes this behavior would start at least 20 or 30 minutes before we actually heard the crack and rumble of thunder, which seems to imply Sadie is reacting to the barometric pressure as much as the loud noise.

At some point during her attack of dog anxiety, Sadie ran into the laundry room and huddled on the floor. So we followed her lead and pulled her dog crate into the room. Sadie quickly jumped into the crate and we closed the door and placed a blanket over the crate. This worked to calm her for a few minutes, but soon she started howling and rattling the door of her crate.

We consulted our vet, who suggested giving Sadie a Melatonin 3 mg supplement, available over-the-counter. (Melatonin is sometimes used to relieve jet lag or insomnia in humans.) He said to watch weather reports and if a thunderstorm was indicated, give Sadie the supplement. While this approach works for some of his patients, it did not work for our Sadie. As is the case with people, what works for one patient will not always work for all patients.

I also tried a chamomille supplement for anxiety from the pet store. This also had no effect. During one storm, I pulled Sadie's house into the laundry room, put her inside, then put two house slippers in the dryer. I turned it on a "no heat" cycle. This has worked during storms that pass through quickly. The repetitive slap-slap of the slippers tumbling in the dyer appears to be enough of a distraction to sooth Sadie. However, on summer nights when the storm went on for many hours, Sadie eventually became distraught after about 60 minutes.

Sudden Blindness Leads to Dog Anxiety

When our dog Joe (see photo) became blind with SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome) he understandably began to experience dog anxiety. He became fearful and defensive. He went into his dog crate and did not want to come out. If we tried to coax him out, he snapped at us. When he did come out of his house, Joe refused to let us guide him by hanging onto his collar. He refused to move very far and would not get onto his bed.

I began giving Joe homeopathic drops to combat the anxiety, prescribed by Dr. DeHaan, a holistic veterinarian in North Carolina (www.aholisticvetcom). I put 15 drops of the treatment (see photo) on his food twice a day. In less than a week, Joe started hanging out on his bed rather than his house. He seemed happier. He was not afraid to walk around the room and allowed us to lead him by the collar to go outside.

Although Joe's anxiety level improved a great deal, he still would occasionally growl at us when we tried to coax him outside and also whined a lot as if trying to express his anxiousness at certain times. Living in a multi-dog household, I believe Joe was fearful of walking into another dog. I decided to try a collar called Adaptil®, which uses a synthetic version of the pheromone that a nursing mother dog produces naturally to soothe her puppies.

The rubber-like collar comes with a ring on the inside of the collar (see photo) that must be pulled to activate the soothing pheromone. The collar can be easily adjusted to fit a range of sizes. I ordered the Medium-Large size for our 80-lb. Joe. I put the Adaptil collar over Joe's regular collar. While there was no visible difference at first, Joe's whining began to subside around a week and the occasional challenging growl is now a thing of the past. I bought the collar online for $20 and replace it every four or five weeks. Be sure and shop around if you decide to try the Adaptil collar, as there are many sites selling this product and the prices range greatly, from $20 to $40.

Joe is now a much happier boy and we are now much happier dog parents.



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