A-Z of dog wellbeing: Anxiety

If you or a loved one suffers from anxiety, then you know how scary some situations may be, but have you considered that your dog may also suffer from anxiety?

What is anxiety?

dog looking worriedAnxiety is a normal physiological reaction to the anticipation of potential (real or imagined) dangers that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. While a certain amount of anxiety is healthy for both us and our pets, if it is regular and continual then it can result in long term damage.

What are the potential signs of anxiety?

One of the best things you can do is learn to read dog body language. Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable or scared can help you avoid negative experiences or use them as a positive training moment as part of a counter-conditioning programme, designed by a qualified behaviourist or dog trainer.  Signs of anxiety you might see could include:

  • trembling
  • tail tucked under
  • drooling
  • panting
  • excessive barking
  • pacing or restlessness
  • being withdrawn or hiding
  • reduced activity (depression)
  • diarrhoea
  • inappropriate urination or defecation
  • escape behaviours (freezing or fleeing)
  • increased, out-of-context, potentially injurious activity
  • obsessive licking at, sucking or chewing themselves
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviours
  • aggression

What causes anxiety?

This anxiety can be caused by a number of triggers that may seem ‘normal’ to us, but can trigger anxiety in our pets:

Fear-based anxiety can be caused by previous similar bad experiences, loud noises, unfamiliar surroundings, strange people or animals, overwhelming physical or social interaction, objects like umbrellas or vacuum cleaners, new surfaces like shiny mirrored floors or wooden bridges or places where fear is shown by other animals such as at the vets. Dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful as they will have missed out on the essential socialisation and habituation that helps them live comfortably in our world.

Separation anxiety is a fairly common problem where dogs worry about being left alone or separated from their family, while being left alone at home, with a day-care provider or in the car. This anxiety often results in what we consider to be undesirable behaviours, such as urinating and defecating in the house, chewing the furniture or objects left lying around, or incessant barking.

Age-related anxiety may result as our dogs suffer a decline in brain function as they get older. Their memory, their ability to learn, their awareness and their senses of sight and hearing can all deteriorate. They can suffer from an Alzheimer’s-like condition (Cognitive Disfunction) that can result in confusion, increase or reduction in the desire for human contact, changes in activity and sleep, and an increase in irritability and restlessness.

Pain, illness or lack of physical condition may increase anxiety however because dogs are stoic animals, they can hide their discomfort very well so we are unaware that they are in pain.  If your dog becomes anxious almost overnight, it is essential to get them checked over by your vet to eliminate any illnesses or wounds that may be causing the problem.

Dietary deficiencies could be a trigger for anxiety in our dogs. Serotonin is a chemical produced by nerve cells that helps to combat the feelings of anxiety and depression.  It is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan which the body can’t produce, so needs to be consumed in foods such as nuts, cheese, and red meat. If your dog’s food is low in red meat or nuts this may be contributing to increased anxiety.

How might you help ease your dog’s anxiety?

Situation avoidance allows you to remove your dog from situations that trigger your dog’s anxiety. For example, if you know that your dog is anxious around large dogs, you should avoid them. It doesn’t mean you have to stop every activity, but just plan carefully to reduce the triggers where you can. If your dog’s behaviour escalates into aggression, then please seek support from a qualified behaviourist and ensure they are muzzled when necessary.

Exercise stimulates the production of serotonin (provided the body has access to tryptophan) which is what gives you the feel-good factor after a gym session or long walk. Secondly, it helps to burn off any pent-up energy that can exacerbate anxiety.  Unless your dog is anxious about walks, try a good long walk with lots of sniffing opportunities, but avoid playing chase games (like fetch) as this will only further stimulate the fight or flight systems, and it’s those we are trying to reset.

Super-foods can help to manage the impact of stress on the body. Some foods act as stimulants while others act have a calming influence. Blueberries, kale, beef, turkey, oily fish, hemp seed oil, almonds and pumpkin seeds are all beneficial foods that may help to reduce anxiety.

Herbal self-selection goes even further than super-foods. Our animals can self-medicate from the healing properties of plants, guided by how they taste and smell, however they rarely have access to the medicinal compounds found in leaves, flowers, berries and roots that they need to get back in balance.   Find out more about Herbal self-medication for animals where your dog can get access to the nutrients they need to feel less anxious.

Massage can help to ease anxiety because, when applied correctly, it can help to lower blood pressure, ease tense and guarded muscles, reduce the heart rate, cleanse the lymph system which supports a proper immune response, release toxins, reduce adrenaline and create a ‘feel-good’ effect of comfort, safety and relaxation that can last for days.  Get in touch if you are interested in a massage for your dog.