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Anxiety in dogs: Vet's guide to symptoms and treatment

anxiety in dogs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Anxiety in dogs can be a big problem. It can make doing everyday things a challenge. Even something as simple as leaving the house to run some errands could be problematic for some owners. 

Dogs will show stress in a variety of ways, some appear nervous whereas others can be destructive, or even aggressive. In this article, we will look at some of the most common types of anxiety as well as what you can do to help your pet.

Types of anxiety in dogs 

There are different types of anxiety that dogs can suffer from including:

Separation anxiety 

Separation anxiety is driven by your dog’s need for companionship. These dogs do not like being left on their own, even for relatively short periods. The stress of being apart from his owner can cause your dog to act out. Your dog may howl or bark when you leave the house, pace excessively, or become destructive, chewing or digging at your household possessions.

It is important to train your dog to be happy in his own company from a young age. Whilst it may seem sweet now if your pup wants to follow you from room to room, it can become a problem as he gets older.

Dogs can be fearful of many things, with noise phobias being one of the most common reasons for anxiety. Loud noises like fireworks or thunderstorms are well known for making dogs stressed, but some animals may also be triggered by traffic noise, gunshots, or hot air balloons.

Other animals are fearful of specific things like a ride in the car, a trip to the vets, or meeting new people. There are varying degrees of anxiety, with some dogs appearing mildly uncomfortable when faced with their fears (yawning and increased nose licking) whereas some dogs can lash out becoming aggressive, especially if they feel trapped.

Many dogs can become anxious as they get older. With age comes mental decline and cognitive dysfunction in some individuals. This can lead to confusion causing your dog to become anxious. Some animals forget normal social rules or start misplacing things like their food bowl or toys and others may bark or howl at random. 

signs your dog is getting old

(Image credit: Getty)

Symptoms of anxiety in dogs 

The following can be symptoms of anxiety in dogs:

  • Yawning 
  • Increased nose licking 
  • Increased vocalisation (howling, whining, or barking) 
  • Urinating or defecating in the house 
  • Drooling 
  • Excessive panting 
  • Restlessness (pacing) 
  • Destructive behaviors like chewing or digging 
  • Repetitive or self-soothing behaviors (like licking excessively) 
  • Depression

Causes of anxiety in dogs 

Anxiety can be triggered by many things. Fear-related anxiety usually starts after a bad experience or a lack of appropriate socialization training when he was a young puppy. Puppies should be exposed to a variety of people, animals, and sounds. Otherwise, they are more likely to react negatively to new experiences when they are older according to one study. (opens in new tab) 

If your dog has anxiety all of a sudden it is worth checking there are no underlying health issues. Sudden blindness or loss of hearing could cause your dog to become very worried. A frightening experience could cause your dog to become very anxious quite quickly too.

Treating anxiety in dogs 

Depending on your dog’s symptoms and the type of anxiety seen, your vet may prescribe medication to help your pet. Over-the-counter supplements or appeasing pheromones (opens in new tab) are used in milder cases of stress. 

But some dogs may require prescription medications to help manage their anxiety, in conjunction with behavioral training. Your vet can advise you on what’s best for your pet.

Treating anxiety in dogs at home 

There are some steps you can take at home to make your dog feel less stressed. Eliminating the cause of his stress is ideal, but not always practical. For example, a new baby in the house is trickier to deal with than them seeing the neighbor's dog out of the window (which you can try and remedy with frosted glass, nets, or drawing the curtains).

Otherwise, the best stress-busting tool for your dog is exercise. Dogs that receive plenty of physical and mental stimulation are more likely to be tired, happy dogs. If your dog doesn’t have a chance to go out for decent walks then he can start to become bored and develop behavioral issues.

Spending time with your pet will also help. Grooming them, playing with them, and attending training classes will all be helpful. As mentioned previously, over-the-counter supplements or calming treats can help with anxiety, or natural appeasing pheromones (either in a diffuser, impregnated collar, or a spray for bedding).

dog looking sad

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Treating separation anxiety in dogs 

Giving your dog plenty of exercise and stimulation whilst you are at home can help to tire him out and make him feel more relaxed when you leave. Try stepping out of the room for short periods initially, increasing the time you leave your pet gradually. Seek help from a qualified behaviorist if you are struggling.

You can find more information on how to reduce separation anxiety in our vet's guide. 

What food calms dogs down? 

We know that certain foods can have natural calming properties in people, such as turkey, blueberries, oily fish, and sweet potatoes, but there have been no studies into their effectiveness in dogs. 

You may have thought about keeping your pooch occupied with peanut butter as this can be applied to lick mats to keep nervous dogs focused and calm during bathtime.

It is not proven to calm dogs, but it can be used to help give your dog mental stimulation when used in puzzle toys or feeders. Smearing peanut butter in these toys can give your dog something to keep him busy. Just make sure you use natural peanut butter with no artificial sweeteners, such as toxic xylitol. You can find out more about serving peanut butter safely to your dog in our vet's article.  

Food alone is unlikely to help your dog calm down so you would be better speaking to a pet behaviorist or vet, rather than relying solely on dietary changes.

When to visit a vet 

If your dog is suffering from anxiety regularly then you should seek help. Ignoring the problem will only lead to things getting worse. Your vet will examine your dog for any obvious signs of pain or ill health, before suggesting the next steps.

Conclusion 

Anxiety in dogs can be present in a variety of different ways, depending on the severity of your dog’s stress and his individual triggers. Seek help early on to avoid symptoms worsening over time. Speak to your vet for help, who may refer you to a qualified pet behaviorist. 

Rebecca is a veterinary surgeon who graduated in 2009 from the Royal Veterinary College in London. She has a wealth of experience in first opinion small animal practice, having done a mixture of day-to-day routine work, on-call emergency duties and managerial roles over the years. She enjoys medicine in particular and she is proud to have recently achieved a BSAVA postgraduate certificate in small animal medicine (with commendation). She writes on various feline and canine topics, including behavior, nutrition, and health. Outside of work and writing she enjoys walking her own dog, spending time with her young family and baking!