Everything you need to know about pet anxiety.
Anxiety can be debilitating, not only for humans but also for animals. Just like their owners, dogs experience a whole range of mental health and mood issues – including stress, anxiety and depression.
Rescued dogs tend to be especially prone to anxiety, as they are more likely to have been subject to forms of trauma at the hands of previous owners. Separation anxiety is particularly common in these situations, especially in cases where dogs have been neglected, and left alone for long periods of time. Other dogs which have been raised in dysfunctional and/or abusive environments can also be anxious of noises, sudden movement, eye contact, physical touch and a wealth of other things, depending on what triggers memories of their previous ownership. In other scenarios, dogs with memory loss and dementia – which is commonly the case with older dogs – are also prone to experiencing forms of anxiety and depression.
In general, the root issues for a dog’s anxiety can be categorised into the following five areas:
fear, seperation, aging, physical pain and generalised anxiety.
How to spot whether your dog is anxious
Anxiety is common in dogs, particularly those that have experienced some form of trauma in their past. When dogs are anxious, they display a range of physical signs, depending on what is triggering them. These can be any of the following: cowering, hiding, shaking, growling, whining, showing sudden signs of aggression, chewing up inanimate objects, not eating or being suddenly uninterested in food, not sleeping or having broken sleep.
If you start observing any of this behaviour in your dog, watch out for patterns in the causes. For example, does your dog start hiding when large men come into the house, or do they go off their food when you leave them to go to work?
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These can be divided into fear, seperation, ageing and general health. Consider what triggers your dog’s stress. Some common triggers include loud noises – such as fireworks, thunderstorms and construction sounds.
Other dogs become anxious when they are left alone without humans. In other instances, general old age may have caused dogs to struggle to walk, eat and do the same things they were once able to do, which can cause them to become anxious and depressed.
Separation anxiety in dogs is common; dogs can panic when left alone in the house, as they do not know how long humans will be gone for and when they will be returning. Separation anxiety is especially common in rescue dogs which have been subject to neglect, particularly in cases where they’ve been left for long periods by their owners.
As an owner you should ensure dogs with separation anxiety are not left for intervals longer than 90 minutes to begin with. Once you know they can be left alone this time without panicking, you can slowly build up the amount of time they can be left for. It is best not to exceed a working day (eight hours) and ensure you build up to this length of time slowly.
Other methods of calming dogs while you’re out the house include leaving the radio or a television set on, having a friend or relative pop in at a set time during the day, leaving clothes that smell of you out when you leave, and giving them a treat to keep them occupied when you leave. Experts also suggest to make comings and goings as low-key as possible; while you may want to excitedly say goodbye to your dog before work, or greet them at the end of the day, this can produce intense emotions for them, which can prevent them from being able to regulate their mood and be calm while they are away.
Often, dogs experiencing physical pain linked to health issues or their age can experience anxiety and low-mood. Joint pain – which is common in older animals – can make dog’s irritable; they are less mobile and may feel anxious and depressed if they cannot run, walk or move around as they once did.
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Many anxious dogs are triggered by certain objects, situations and sounds – with fear of one or a number of these things central to their anxiety. Common causes of fear in dogs include:
- Other dogs (commonly called dog social anxiety)
- People or specific people (such as a fear of large men)
- Loud noises, including fireworks, thunderstorms, vacuum cleaners, car horns, music and construction work
- Moving transport, such as bicycles or cars
- Physical touch
- Fast and sudden movements
- Small spaces
Similarly to humans, dogs are usually afraid of what they don’t understand. If your dog seems frightened and anxious, a good approach is to slowly desensitize them to the thing which is triggering their fear. If your dog is a rescue animal which is displaying signs of being anxious around men, for example, you could try introducing them to men gradually, ensuring the men are sensitive to their needs. You could have men come round and sit near them, and have their hand extended to pet your dog when it is ready to approach them. If you continue this process regularly and in small bursts, the presence of men will become normalised and the dog’s fear will likely be subdued over time.
Distraction can also be a key tool to help dogs which are afraid of external triggers that may be out of your control. For example, during firework heavy events, like bonfire night, New Year and Chinese New Year, a good idea would be to spend more time with your dog, potentially practising tricks and rewarding them for good behaviour with treats and petting. This is a great tool for moving their focus away from louder sounds and helping to prevent and reduce their anxiety.