Written by Vet Evidence Based

Dog Anxiety: Signs, Causes And Treatment

Margarita Boyd
Written by: Dr. Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS
Dogs can experience anxiety, just like humans can. Therefore, you should know how to treat it and how to recognize it. Dog anxiety can appear in any breed at any age. Even if your dog seems like the happiest dog in the world today, he may demonstrate signs of anxiety tomorrow. Read on to discover more about this common condition in dogs.

Dogs can experience anxiety in a similar manner to humans. We all know that it isn’t a very nice feeling, but just like us, it is totally normal for a dog to feel stressed or anxious occasionally. However, if anxiety and distress become a regular occurrence for a dog, it could lead to the development of behavioral problems, an anxiety disorder or even health problems, and greatly affect the dog’s quality of life.

In this article, we will take a closer look into what causes anxiety in dogs, as well as the common symptoms and treatment options. Finally, we will provide lots of tips for anxiety prevention in dogs too. Therefore, you will be fully equipped to spot if your own dog is showing any signs of anxiety and know what to do next.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear and is part of a normal stress response that allows a dog to be alert and take action. It is perfectly normal for a dog to feel anxious about an unknown and new situation. For example, if a dog hears a loud bang it will usually run away to a safer place. Most dogs will only have brief anxiety about certain situations that they don’t like, such as going to the vet clinic, riding in the car, or meeting new people or animals.

However, if the dog starts to have persistent or frequent anxiety and stress (e.g. every time an owner leaves the house)it can take a physical and mental toll on the dog’s health. Prolonged anxiety and stress could even shorten a dog’s lifespan! Therefore, it is important to pick up on the signs of dog anxiety, so you can spot it early and prevent it from becoming a bigger problem. (1)

What Are The Signs Of Anxiety In Dogs?

Sometimes the signs of anxiety in dogs can be as subtle as putting their ears back or lip licking, and in other cases, they can be as obvious as excessive barking or destructive behavior in the home. Every dog is different, so it makes sense that they will show anxiety in different ways too.

These are the most common signs of anxiety to look out for:

Good to know: In some cases anxious dogs may throw up clear liquid

A dog’s anxiety can be mild or severe, and show itself in a variety of stress-related behaviors (all listed above).

When a dog is feeling very anxious it can commonly lead to the dog being destructive in the house, and often in an attempt to break out the dog can cause painful injuries to itself and create a lot of damage. Aggression is another serious issue and the most dangerous symptom of dog anxiety. The aggression can be directed towards people or other dogs, and be extremely difficult to deal with.

Unfortunately, destructive behaviors and aggression, which are commonly seen in dogs with anxiety, are a major reason why dogs are euthanized or relinquished to animal shelters. So while some people might think they have a “bad” dog, the dog, in fact, might have an anxiety problem.

What Causes Dog Anxiety?

Anxious and fearful behavior in dogs is actually pretty common and there are lots of possible underlying causes. The most common anxiety-related problems in dogs include generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, storm and noise phobias or illness related anxiety.

A dog’s anxiety problems can stem from one previous bad experience. If the bad experience is repeated again then the anxiety will continue to escalate if it is not stopped and treated. For example, a dog that has a phobia of storms or fireworks, the anxiety may continue to get worse every time there is a storm if he does not receive help. If a dog is neglected, abandoned or treated badly by an owner, this too can cause anxiety-related behavior.

In other cases, fear and anxiety problems may be acquired during a puppy’s learning and socialization period- from 3-16 weeks of age is a really important time in a dog’s development. If a puppy doesn’t learn how to socialize appropriately with other dogs and people or be carefully exposed to lots of different noises and places, then it is much more likely to suffer from anxiety, aggression, and behavioral problems when it is older.

Even just a significant change in a dog’s life which causes the normal emotional balance to be shifted can cause anxiety. Common examples may include moving home, a new baby or dog in the household, construction work in the home or the death of an owner.

Separation Anxiety In Dogs

This is one of the most common types of behavioral problems in dogs and is estimated to affect around 14% of dogs. A dog with separation anxiety becomes very distressed when they are left alone or separated from their owner(s). It can lead to destructive behavior in the home (e.g. scratching doors, breaking things), excessive barking, drooling, or toileting in the house. Dogs are social animals; therefore, they generally don’t like to be left alone (it can help to know how to keep your dog entertained when left home alone). This type of anxiety can stem from loneliness, boredom, a previous negative experience when left alone, or if the dog just didn’t learn to be alone when it was a puppy.

Fast fact: Did you know that some experts claim that dogs might suffer from bipolar disorder?

Generalized Anxiety In Dogs

Sometimes the cause of the anxiety is not obvious and cannot be determined. Maybe the dog’s history is unknown as it is a rescue dog, or the underlying cause of anxiety was not noticed when it first happened in the past. Some dogs are just very prone to anxiety, and there may be a genetic link, as one of the dog’s parents had anxiety too.

Dogs with generalized anxiety are prone to getting anxious and upset at any time, when they face something new, or when there is a change to their routine. Some dogs may be constantly alert, nervous and tremble a lot. However, often this condition goes unrecognized as the dog may only show subtle signs such as licking their lips, putting their ears back or tucking their tail, none of which are normal behaviors.

Noise And Thunderstorm Phobia In Dogs

These phobias are a very common disorder in the dog. Usually, a certain noise-related stimulus sets the dog off into a panic. Often noise, thunderstorm and firework phobias are all placed into this one group. A dog may suffer from one of these phobias, or them all, and additionally may be more likely to suffer from other types of anxiety too. Common clinical signs include hiding, trembling, destructive behavior, barking, drooling and inappropriate toileting in the house. (2)

Illness Related Anxiety In Dogs

Sometimes a dog’s anxiety may be caused by an underlying illness or disease. This type of anxiety is more common in older dogs. Some common causes of illness-related anxiety include:

  • Hearing and vision loss
    Dogs with reduced hearing or vision may become easily startled, confused and anxious, especially in new surroundings.
  • Cognitive dysfunction
    This condition is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people. A dog’s memory, awareness, and learning start to decline, which can lead to anxiety and confusion.
  • Encephalitis
    Inflammation of the brain can lead to anxiety behavior, confusion, seizures or even aggression.
  • Arthritis
    Inflammation and thickening of the joints are more common in older dogs. It can cause lameness and pain. However, it may cause the dog to feel anxious and restless too.

If your dog suddenly shows a change in behavior or signs of anxiety, then its best to schedule a vet appointment. The vet will be able to check if there are any underlying illnesses or diseases causing the anxiety and give your dog the help he needs.

How Is Dog Anxiety Treated?

It is best to get help from your veterinarian or a certified canine behaviorist. They can help to diagnose the type of anxiety your dog is suffering from, as well as help, figure out any underlying causes or triggers, and come up with a treatment plan. A veterinarian will be able to make sure there is no underlying health problem causing your dog’s anxiety.

Severe anxiety is often treated with a combination of avoidance measures, desensitization, training, and sometimes medication.

  1. Avoidance:

    The first step is often the avoidance of the trigger which is causing anxiety. It is especially important in the early stages of treatment to help make the dog feel calmer and give both the dog and the owner a break while they work on other training. However, depending on the trigger it can be quite difficult to achieve.

    Avoiding storms will be difficult in a storm-prone area. Therefore, other measures to decrease the (noise/visual) impact of the storm on the dog need to be taken such as closing the windows and blinds, making the dog a safe, well-padded “den”, using earplugs, or using background noise to block the storm noise. These measures are also great for firework phobias too.

  2. Desensitization:

    Desensitization means slowly getting a dog used to the stimulus causing the anxiety, by making the stimuli as minimal (or pleasant) as possible so it doesn’t make the dog feel anxious.
    For example, a dog that is anxious about meeting strangers begins with seeing a stranger in the distance but is far enough away that the dog doesn’t show anxiety. The dog can be reassured and rewarded for good behavior if he shows no signs of anxiety. Slowly over time (days or weeks), the dog can move closer to the stranger, with lots of reassurance from the owner, until he learns that he can feel comfortable in the company of strangers.

    Another example is the desensitization of a firework phobia in dogs by using a controlled sound therapy program. The firework noise can be played very quietly in the background of the home during a normal day, then over time (days, weeks) the volume is slowly increased and the dog is monitored for signs of anxiety. Over time it is hoped the dog will stop reacting to the firework sounds.

  3. Counterconditioning:

    This involves pairing a positive experience with the stimulus that is causing the dog’s anxiety. Over time the dog will hopefully make a positive association with the thing that causes him anxiety. You need to be consistent and repetitive, and have tonnes of patience!
    Examples include: giving a dog that is anxious with other dogs a treat when another dog is approaching, or a dog with separation anxiety will be given an attractive chew toy or stuffed treat toy to make a positive association with the owner leaving.

  4. Response Substitution:

    This is similar to counter conditioning and encourages a dog to display new behavior instead of the undesirable behavior associated with anxiety/phobia. For example, meeting other dogs might cause an anxious dog to display fear or aggression signs, but instead, he should be distracted with a game/training when he approaches another dog. If a dog usually hides when he hears thunder, the behavior should be changed so that he searches for a treat when he hears thunder instead. The dog learns to do a different positive response to an anxiety stimulus. However, care should be taken that the positive experience or treat is not rewarding the dog for bad behavior!

  5. Medication:

    Sometimes the dog’s anxiety is so severe that medications are required too. Anti-anxiety SSRI medication, benzodiazepines or anti-depressant medications are occasionally prescribed by a veterinarian, but should always be used along with behavior modification training. Benzodiazepines (e.g. diazepam) might be prescribed for a known predictable or short term episode such as fireworks or a car journey. For dogs that have severe generalized anxiety and require more long term treatment, a maintenance medication (e.g. fluoxetine, clomipramine) may be required.

  6. (3)

  7. Alternative therapies:

    There are some alternative, natural therapies or supplements available which may help a dog’s anxiety.

    • Pheromones (Adaptil)
      Pheromones are natural chemicals or hormones released into the air by dogs. Adaptil uses a natural comforting chemical, used by mother dogs to comfort their pups, and provides a strong signal of security and comfort. It can help make the dog feel calm and relaxed and is available in a number of different formulations.
    • Aromatherapy
      A natural and simple way to help make a dog feel relaxed is by using aromatherapy. Common essential oils used to help with anxiety include lavender, tangerine or ylang-ylang.
    • (4)

    • Dog anxiety jacket
      This works because the light pressure of the jacket can make the dog feel more safe and secure, similar to swaddling a baby. A thundershirt is a well-known example.

Can Dog Anxiety Be Prevented?

In some dogs it can be difficult to predict episodes of anxiety, in other dogs, there are clear stimuli that cause anxiety. Thankfully there are some ways you can help prevent or reduce the level of anxiety. (5)

  • Body language

    Learning how to monitor a dog’s body language is the best way to tell if a dog is getting anxious. If you notice your dog getting anxious, you can try to avoid the situation altogether or try a distraction or substitution technique instead.

  • Socialization

    There is a really important socialization period in a puppy’s development between 3-16 weeks. Proper socialization and introduction to new experiences in a positive way during this time period can really lay a great foundation for a dog in later life. It can help prevent the development of anxiety, aggression, and behavioral problems. Socialization is still important in older dogs, but they may take more effort and patience to change their bad habits.

  • Obedience training

    Obedience training is an important part of preventing and managing canine anxiety. It is a great way to bond with your dog and also establishes trust between you both. A dog with some basic training is also easier to socialize than a dog with no training at all. Obedience or agility classes are a great way for your dog to meet other dogs in a well-controlled environment. Get help from a certified dog trainer if you find training your dog difficult.

  • Avoidance

    If possible you can try to avoid or prevent situations that trigger your dog’s anxiety, even for the short term while you work on trying to overcome your dog’s fears. For example, if your dog becomes aggressive when another dog approaches him while eating, then feed him separately. If your dog becomes anxious when near lots of other dogs, then walk your dog in quieter areas. Sometimes situations cannot be controlled or avoided, and you should take further preventative measures such as keeping your dog on a leash, using a basket muzzle to prevent potentially dangerous situations.

  • Exercise

    Your dog needs regular exercise and mental stimulation to ensure he is happy and healthy. A dog that is bored, lonely or not exercised enough is more likely to have destructive behavior and anxiety. It is also a really good idea to take your dog for a walk and playtime, before you leave the house, especially if he suffers from separation anxiety.

  • (5)

  • Nutrition

    Feed your dog a good quality balanced and complete diet. Some poor-quality diets are full of additives and high in salt and artificial flavors and colors. A diet with lots of artificial additives could cause your dog to have health problems or act hyperactive.

  • Routine

    Most dogs love having a routine, so they know when they will be fed and walked. This is particularly important for a dog with generalized anxiety. By sticking to a consistent routine, and creating a predictable environment you can help reduce your dog’s anxiety.

Dog Anxiety Conclusion

It is normal if a dog has a little anxiety every once in a while, but it isn’t normal if the anxiety becomes a permanent fixture and starts to affect the dog’s quality of life. As a dog owner, it is important to be able to recognize the signs of anxiety in dogs and understand there may be many underlying causes and triggers.

Good to know: Some dogs may experience anxiety when they are too early separated from their littermates

If you think your dog is showing signs of an anxiety disorder, it’s best to talk with your veterinarian so your dog can get the help he needs. The vet can rule out any health problems, diagnose the dog, help pinpoint any underlying causes and triggers, and formulate a suitable treatment plan.

You may also need the help of a certified dog behaviorist. Helping your dog overcome anxiety takes patience, commitment and lots of love, but it will be all worth it knowing you are doing the best for your beloved pet.