A difficulty that affects all dog owners is being able to identify the non-verbal cues indicating that their canine friend is under stress. Physical issues such as an injured leg or irritated skin can be displayed by a limp or excessive scratching; however, when it comes to a dog’s mental wellbeing, it becomes far trickier to spot the signs.
That is where we come in as vets. It is our responsibility to spot the tell-tale signs of anxiety in dogs and give the best advice to owners on how to support an anxious dog.
How can you spot the signs of anxiety in dogs?
While every animal is unique and may express their emotions in different ways, there are several common behaviors which can be used to identify anxiety in dogs, some of which could be displayed while in the clinic or described by the owners. The main signs to look out for include:
- Barking or howling when the owner is leaving or isn’t at home
- Constant pacing & panting
- Shivering or shaking
- Wanting to be alone by either running away or hiding in the house
- Constant irritability or not being able to settle
- Digging or destroying furniture or other property
- Excessive licking, chewing or Scratching at themselves
- Refusing to eat or drink
- Urinating more frequently
Not all of the signs of anxiety are so clear. Some more subtle signs of an anxious dog, if displayed regularly, could present as:
- Licking their lips or excessive yawning
- Showing whites of the eyes or looking away
- Lifting a paw
What general advice can you provide to owners of anxious dogs?
It is important to ensure that the owner approaches the situation calmly as to not overstimulate their dog, which can heighten the dog’s stress. Below are few additional changes that can make a dog’s life less stressful.
Controlling body language
While it might be tempting to smother and cuddle a stressed or anxious dog in an attempt to comfort them, this could heighten their stress levels. Sometimes the best thing to do is to give them some space while also keeping an eye on them. Let them make the first move in approaching you when they are ready.
Owners should also avoid approaching their anxious dog head-on and making direct eye contact, as this can make an already stressed dog feel more anxious. You should advise them to go down to the dog’s level and call them in an encouraging tone—if the dog comes, reward them with a treat. This will help the dog to be more comfortable and trusting.
Control the dog’s surroundings
While it may not always be possible to control everything about the dog’s surroundings, owners should try to keep things as open as possible. You should advise them to avoid crowded or busy areas, and if the dog is anxious around other dogs, they should avoid any head-on confrontations in enclosed spaces. If they notice their dog is stressed in any of these situations, they should calmly remove their dog from that environment and use distraction techniques (such as treats or games) to draw their mind away from a perceived threat.
WHEN CAN DOGS FACE ANXIETY?
One of the best ways to identify which treatment is the best for an anxious dog is to spot what is triggering the anxiety in the dog. There are several factors, both biological and environmental, which could make a dog anxious.
This is a very common issue. Dogs are social animals and not many actually like being left on their own. This type of anxiety is often triggered by boredom, loneliness or if they have had a negative experience when left alone in the past. Dogs with separation anxiety often become destructive, go to the bathroom in the house or howl/bark when their owner leaves.
If a dog owner comes to you with concerns about separation anxiety, you could recommend the following tips:
- Tire the dog out before they leave the house, either by playing with them or taking them for a walk.
- Give them a treat, toy or chew to keep them occupied when they leave.
- Don’t make a fuss about leaving. If the owner makes a big deal about leaving, the dog will think it is a big deal!
Change in environment
Several environmental changes can trigger anxiety for dogs, whether it be a house move, traveling or being adopted from a shelter, as they may have traumatic memories. One of the best ways to tackle this is to establish a routine in the dog’s life. Advise the owners to draw up a predictable and consistent routine with regular walks and feeding times and make sure they stick to it.
It is common for a dog to become stressed or anxious as a response to an illness or disease, even for a dog that isn’t usually anxious. If the owner reports abrupt weight gain or loss, or a random change in behavior, it could be a sign of illness-based anxiety. You should advise dog owners to contact the practice if they notice a sudden change in behavior, as this could be the sign of an undiscovered health issue.
For generalized anxiety, it is not always possible to determine the exact cause, and certain breeds can be more prone to anxiety than others. This type of anxiety is common, but the symptoms are often passed off as “typical behavior” for certain breeds of dogs. In this case, advise owners to keep a calm and consistent environment for their dogs. Natural supplements are a simple but effective way to help reduce anxiety and encourage relaxation in a nervous or stressed canine, easily added to the dog’s food or given prior to or during a stressful event. Also, pheromone diffusers can work well to promote a sense of wellbeing and calm in any home.
In more difficult or severe cases of anxiety, prescribed medication or antidepressants can work. These medications should be used concurrently with the recommendation of therapy from a local dog behaviorist to help balance pharmaceuticals with positive behavioral therapy.
How can you calm a dog’s anxiety if it is triggered by their vet visit?
A visit to the vet can be a stressful experience for a dog and can trigger anxiety. The dog might be separated from their owner, associate the building with illness or feel uncomfortable being approached by an unknown person in an unfamiliar place. In order to help destigmatize trips to your practice, you should invite owners to visit with their dogs, even when they don’t need a check-up or procedure. A treat and some affection from the staff can help to lessen the stigma of a visit to the vet.
To help keep the dog calm, you should first establish that you are not a threat. If the dog is particularly stressed, put yourself at their level and use positive reinforcement with treats to help them feel comfortable. When possible, keep the owner near so that the dog feels secure and safe. You should also allow the dog to familiarize themselves with the setting of the clinic by letting them walk around and sniff so they can explore their surroundings and feel safe. +