Some dogs are naturally more dominant than others, but there’s a difference between a submissive dog and an anxious one. If your dog seems unable to settle down or avoids eye contact when you try to look at him, he may have an anxiety disorder.
In the same way mental illness affects humans differently, anxiety may look different in one dog than in another. Some breeds are simply more prone to anxiety, and some experience it as a direct result of a traumatic event.
Regardless the cause or the symptoms, it’s important to identify and take steps to treat your dog’s anxiety. Here’s what you need to know.
Symptoms of Dog Anxiety
Before getting into the details of what causes dog anxiety, it’s important to understand the symptoms. You know your dog better than anyone, so you’re the best judge when it comes to his behavior and what is and isn’t normal. Sudden changes in behavior should always be cause for concern, even if they end up being nothing more than an upset stomach. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
But what if your dog has always been a little nervous? How do you know if it’s anxiety?
Here are some of the most common symptoms of anxiety in dogs:
- Panting or drooling
- Excessive panting
- Whining or whimpering
- Passive attempts to escape
- Destructive behavior
- Dilated pupils
- Spontaneous elimination
- Excessive licking or yawning
- Avoiding interaction
It’s completely normal for a dog to exhibit these behaviors periodically, especially when he’s in an uncomfortable situation. When your dog shows numerous symptoms at the same time or in an extreme way, however, it could be an indication of ongoing anxiety.
Common Causes of Dog Anxiety
It doesn’t take a pet behavior expert to know when your dog is feeling more anxious than usual. Many dog owners notice their dog’s anxiety during thunderstorms, in the car on the way to the vet, or when unfamiliar people come to the house. When anxiety is a daily experience for your dog, however, it may not be as obvious. What’s more, there are many potential causes for anxiety in dogs.
Here’s an overview of some of the most common causes of dog anxiety:
Some dogs tend to form closer bonds with their owners than others and some dogs take it to the extreme. If your dog is perfectly fine until you’re about to leave the house then completely loses it, it’s probably separation anxiety. In milder cases, you may not even know your dog has been upset until you come home to find the living room destroyed and claw marks on the door.
Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes overly attached to their owner and develops a negative reaction to being left alone. In many cases, dogs with separation anxiety start to experience symptoms of anxiety before you even leave the house. They learn to associate certain predeparture cues like grabbing your keys or putting on your coat with your impending absence.
In mild cases, giving your dog a special treat or an interactive toy right before you leave is enough to distract him. By the time he notices you’re gone, the triggers for his anxiety will have passed and he’ll be fine. In more severe cases, you may need to work with your dog to counter condition his response through progressive desensitization.
We’ve all experienced the fear and sadness of being lost, even if only in a dream. Being in a shelter can be a scary and overwhelming experience for a dog in a similar way, but it is often paired with a sense of abandonment. Many dogs who end up in shelters experience traumatic events before being taken there which can add to their anxiety.
If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, it’s important to take the time to let your new pet get acclimated. Some dogs bounce back more quickly than others, but you shouldn’t force a fearful dog to cuddle or play until he’s ready. Start right away with developing a predictable routine and try to keep the home environment as stable and unchanging as possible for at least the first few months.
Animals have a natural instinct to hide weaknesses, so it can sometimes come as a surprise for pet owners to find out their pet is sick. Aside from obvious symptoms like changes in your dog’s bowel movements, many symptoms of illness can go unnoticed for days or even weeks at a time. A sudden or significant change of behavior should never be ignored, as it could be an indication of illness.
If your dog develops sudden anxiety and you can’t directly link it to a certain event or trigger, it could be a sign of illness. Here are some of the potential causes:
- Encephalitis – Caused by inflammation in the brain, this condition can trigger symptoms of anxiety as well as seizures and clumsy gait, even coma.
- Hypothyroidism – This condition is caused by an underactive thyroid gland and may be coupled with lethargy, weight gain, and hair loss.
- Thyrotoxicosis – Also known as Grave’s Disease, this is another condition that affects the thyroid gland and can produce symptoms of anxiety.
- Pre–Diabetes – A precursor to diabetes, this condition sometimes manifests with generalized anxiety symptoms in addition to weight gain, excessive thirst, and the development of cataracts.
- Hearing/Vision Loss – If your dog starts to lose some of his vision or hearing he may be prone to startle easy and can become anxious of his surroundings.
Take your dog to the vet as soon as you notice a sudden change in behavior, even if the behavior itself doesn’t seem problematic. At the very least, you’ll find out it was nothing and have peace of mind.
In cases where the cause for your dog’s anxiety can’t be determined, it may simply be diagnosed as generalized anxiety. It may be that the triggering cause for your dog’s anxiety occurred in the past and went unnoticed – this is common in shelter dogs. It may also be that your dog is prone to anxiety but doesn’t experience symptoms all the time.
Generalized anxiety is very common in dogs and can range in severity. Some of the breeds most highly prone to generalized anxiety include Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, bichon frise, cocker spaniels, greyhounds, havanese, and cavalier king Charles spaniels.
Another potential cause for anxiety in dogs is simply age. Age-related anxiety typically affects older dogs and is often associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Similar to the early stages of Alzheimer’s in humans, CDS causes issues with memory, perception, learning, and awareness. Because your dog may not understand what’s happening to him, these things can lead to confusion and anxiety.
The first step to treating your dog’s anxiety is to identify the trigger, if there is one. For dogs who simply seem to be anxious by nature, over-the-counter calming chews or an anti-anxiety bed like the Calming Pet Bed may help reduce day-to-day symptoms.