Anxiety is extremely common in dogs; in fact, one large-scale study of nearly 14,000 owners suggested that more than 72% of dogs experience anxiety to at least some degree!
As an experienced vet, this is something I’ve seen firsthand.
I vividly remember countless instances of dogs displaying signs of anxiety when visiting my clinic. But anxiety in dogs extends beyond just a trip to the vet.
This common yet often overlooked issue is what inspired me to delve deeper into canine anxiety, and in this blog post, I aim to share my insights on its causes, signs, and how we can help our dogs navigate through it.
We’ll discuss how to calm an anxious dog at home, as well as touching upon vet and veterinary behaviorist interventions for more severe anxiety.
How to Calm An Anxious Dog at Home (that work!)
1. Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Exercise
If your four legged friend is teeming with nervous energy, one of the best ways you can help is by encouraging and facilitating physical exercise. A walk, run (if your dog’s health and fitness levels permit this) or even just playing fetch can be tremendously useful when it comes to letting off steam. And of course, it’s not just anxious dogs who can benefit from physical exercise; most dogs enjoy burning energy in the great outdoors. These activities also provide valuable bonding time with your pet, and will generally boost your pup’s overall wellbeing.
2. Provide Distractions
Interactive toys including puzzle toys provide mental stimulation as well as distracting anxious dogs from their woes. Of course, in acutely stressful situations it can sometimes be difficult to engage a wound-up dog in an interactive toy, so realistically this method is probably more suitable for pets dealing with more chronic anxiety, such as those confined to the house whilst their owner is at work. Of all the interactive toys available, the Kong classic dog toy is still arguably the O.G. Snap yours up on Amazon.
3. Offer Physical Contact
Most dogs appear to find their owner’s touch and physical affection comforting. In fact, often the only exception to this rule is where dogs have a history of abuse, or are suffering with undiagnosed pain which may mean they resultantly shy away from the once craved touch of a beloved human.
Assuming your pet does not fall into one of the above two categories, and he/she is generally amenable to physical contact, try leaning into this method to calm your dog the next time they encounter a stressful situation. They’ll love you for it.
4. Give Massage a Go
Most of us are familiar with the tension-relieving wonders of a good massage. Common sense dictates that massage ought to be helpful for alleviating dog anxiety, too. When stressed, we (and our pets) experience muscle tension, which can be eased through massage. Massage may be particularly beneficial for dogs with pain-related anxiety, although if you suspect your dog is in pain you should certainly consult your own vet first to determine whether or not massage is appropriate for your pet.
5. Try Music Therapy
Music therapy shows promise as an accessible and cost-effective means by which to reduce anxiety in dogs. Studies show that generally, classical music appears to be preferred by our canine companions, and may be especially soothing if your dog suffers from frayed nerves. Many soundtracks specifically created for dogs are also available (such as ‘Through a Dog’s Ear’, or this PetMedics Calming Music Machine for dogs), although the evidence-hungry pet parent may wish to know that these have not been shown by research to provide any additional benefit over classic music created for the two-legged listener.
Dog owners should be aware however, that at least one study has shown a significant worsening of firework fear when owners opted to play music for their canine companions in an attempt to ease their fears. So, music therapy may show promise, but it is certainly not recommended in every situation, and may even have the potential to cause worsening of phobias in some instances.
6. Provide an Escape Pod
Sometimes, dogs will benefit hugely from very simple steps. This may be one such example: just providing a safe zone where your dog can relax, experience peace and generally remove him or herself from the presence of an anxiety trigger can make all the difference. ZenCrate (available direct from the manufacturer) offers a particularly stylish solution for the house proud pet parent.
It’s important to make sure your dog’s safe space is exactly that: theirs. Keep children, visitors and other dogs out of your dog’s escape pod!
7. Invest in a Calming Coat or T-shirt
The gentle pressure provided by canine calming vests could be considered roughly equivalent of that of the weighted blanket (this, for those who aren’t familiar) which many people (myself included!) turn to when feeling anxious. A number of options are available, including ThunderShirt Anxiety Vest and the American Kennel Club Stress Relief Coat.
Whilst we aren’t yet fully sure exactly how these fashion choices promote relaxation, they do appear to be effective. ThunderShirt has been shown to reduce both behavioural and physiological signs of anxiety, when worn correctly.
8. Consider Calming Supplements
There have never been more calming supplements for dogs available online. I’m sure there have never been more calming supplements for dogs that don’t work available online, either! The astute owner will take any claims with a pinch of salt, and seek out evidence to back up the bravado prior to purchase.
Aside from it’s excellent safety record, the reason I trust and regularly recommend Zylkene Calming Supplement for Dogs is that this nutraceutical has been clinically proven to be equally as effective as prescription veterinary anxiety medications when it comes to calming anxious dogs. Zylkene is available in a variety of strengths, suitable for small, medium and large dogs. You can find it right now, on Chewy.com.
9. Trial Calming Pheromones
Marketed as ‘communicating to dogs, like dogs’, the Adaptil Calm Diffuser releases a synthetic form of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP). This calming canine pheromone is produced by mother dogs to reassure their puppies, but evidence suggests DAP diffusers can decrease signs of separation anxiety, distress and fear in adult dogs, too. In fact, at the time of writing the Adaptil Calm diffuser is probably one of the most scientifically-backed calming products available to pet owners without a veterinary prescription.
10. Work on Desensitization
Desensitization refers to gradually increasing your dog’s exposure to a fear-inducing stimulus in a controlled environment, until it no longer elicits a fear response. For example, the sound of fireworks may be played at a very, very low level (not loud enough to upset the dog) and over time (days or weeks) the volume can be gradually increased. Desensitization is completed over multiple sessions, and your dog should not show any signs of distress; if they do, you’re increasing the stimulus intensity too fast, and you need to back off a little. Desensitization is most effective when used in combination with counterconditioning.
Counterconditioning refers to “pairing” your dog’s fear-inducing trigger with a desirable reward such as a treat, praise or play. Over time and with consistency, this results in the replacement of the negative association (i.e., ‘this thing is scary’) with a positive one (i.e., ‘when this thing happens I get a treat!’)
Counterconditioning and desensitization are most effective when used in combination with each other, and together have been shown to be more effective than nutraceuticals, environmental modification (eg, providing a safe space, or playing music), and even more effective than owner interaction. I’m not suggesting your dog loves food more than they love you, but data doesn’t lie…
Types of Dog Anxiety
It’s believed that upwards of 20% of dogs may suffer from separation anxiety; a truly staggering figure! This type of dog anxiety can be equally as difficult for the owner as for the pet, since affected dogs may bark non-stop whilst the human caregiver is out of the house, and/or destroy furniture or other items in the home. Tragically, this subtype of anxiety is a common cause of dogs being relinquished to shelters or even euthanized when otherwise healthy.
A survey of more than 5,000 pet parents in Norway found that 23% of owners reported their dog to have some degree of phobia or excessive fear response to noises, with fireworks being the most problematic of all familiar sounds. Interestingly, this survey also found that increased age was correlated with an increased degree of fear, with older dogs consistently being more fearful than their more youthful counterparts. It’s possible that this is due to repeated traumatic exposures to the stimulus (in this case, fireworks) during which the pet did not feel safe, or perhaps that the increased fear is due to the co-existence of age-related anxiety (see below) in some dogs.
Whether or not storm phobia is considered to be a separate clinical entity to noise phobia depends on which vet or behaviourist you ask! But, where the separation from noise phobia may be a grey area, what’s clear is that storms can be hard for our pets to cope with, and frequently trigger anxiety in dogs, cats and humans alike.
Travel in a vehicle is a common cause of canine stress, and given the every-day normality of car rides this type of anxiety obviously has the potential to negatively impact a great many dogs. Very Recently, initial research has suggested that cannabidiol (CBD) may be useful for travel anxiety in dogs, although further research is needed to establish a safe and effective dose for stressed dogs. Pet parents should also bear in mind that it is not currently legal to give CBD to pets in many states unless directly prescribed by a veterinarian.
Many dogs find certain situations stressful. In fact, as a vet I can tell you first hand that one of the most stressful situations that many of my patients encounter, is coming to see me! I am nice (I promise!) but really, it makes sense: that tremble-inducing combination of car journey, cold exam room, white coats, being poked and prodded on the consult room table followed by the grand finale of a thermometer up the bottom, is enough to instil fear in even the most stalwart of pooches!
It may surprise (or not!) some dog owners to learn, that in general, fewer than 50% of dogs entering vet practices do so calmly, and the majority of canines show signs of acute stress whilst in the veterinary waiting room. Desensitization (see below) and even the judicious use of pharmaceutical calming agents can be particularly helpful for situational anxiety in dogs.
Perhaps the main cause of age-related anxiety in dogs in canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS), a complex condition which has been likened in some ways to human dementia. Dogs with CCDS may be intermittently disorientated, interact differently with their human caregivers and other dogs, have a disturbed sleep-wake cycle and even forget their house-training. Alongside these symptoms, an increase in general anxiety levels is also very common in senior dogs suffering from CCDS.
CCDS is strongly associated with old age. One study found that 13-16% of dogs aged 8-11 years suffer with CCDS, rising to 41-65% of dogs aged 11-13 years and 87-100% of dogs aged 13+ years.
Pain – especially undiagnosed pain in our pets – is closely linked to the exhibition of problem behaviors and to the development of dog anxiety. In fact, undiagnosed pain (the signs of which can be incredibly subtle) is such a common cause of referral to the veterinary behaviorist, that it’s now considered best practice to treat for pain first and assess the pet’s response, rather than trying to eliminate all other possible causes of the problem before eventually circling back to pain. So, if your dog’s anxiety levels have changed recently, or a new, unwanted behavior has developed, bear in mind that it may be pain that is to blame.
What Does Dog Anxiety Look Like?
The following are some of the more common signs of generalized anxiety that we see in canine patients, listed in order from mild to more severe anxiety. It’s worth being aware that even if your dog’s symptoms don’t closely match this list, he or she may still be struggling with anxiety; every pet is an individual, and every dog’s triggers, and emotional and behavioral responses will be unique.
Pup’s Still Anxious? Time to Seek Help
If your dog’s anxiety doesn’t respond fully to the methods outlined above, or if you are in any way concerned for the wellbeing and safely of your dog or a family member (for example, in cases where anxiety is causing aggressive behavior), then you need to stop reading and seek expert help!
Generally, the best person to call first is your vet, as they will be able to instantly advise on immediately concerning problems such as an aggressive pet. They will also be able to rule out any health issues or medical conditions that may be contributing to your dog’s emotional or behavior problems.
The next step is usually a referral or self-referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, who will take an in-depth look at your dog’s environment and social influences as well as your dog’s behaviors and will create a treatment plan that aims to address the underlying root cause of the issue.
Prescription Anxiety Medications
Prescription medication may be used alone (for example, for veterinary visits or long journeys), or may be prescribed on a longer-term basis for use in combination with working with a licensed behaviorist. Some examples of prescription medications are outlined below.
Reconcile contains fluoxetine, which is a type of antidepressant falling into the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Having too little serotonin is known to increase feelings of anxiety and even contribute to depression. Reconcile helps boost your pup’s serotonin levels which may help your dog cope with excessive anxiety triggered by separation from human caregivers.
Clomicalm is an FDA-licensed treatment for separation anxiety in dogs, that contains the tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine. Clomicalm works by increasing your dog’s brain levels of the neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) serotonin and norepinephrine. Having too little serotonin or norepinephrine is linked to depression and anxiety, so it follows that boosting the levels of these neurotransmitters may help dogs feel calmer and reduce anxiety associated with the absence of a family member.
Gabapentin originally rose to pharmaceutical fame as an anti-seizure and pain relieving compound, yet recent research suggests that oral gabapentin may also provide an effective option for storm phobias in dogs. Gabapentin is also a relatively very safe medication for the vast majority of dog. Only a licensed veterinarian can prescribe gabapentin, so speak to your vet if you think your dog might benefit from a gabapentin trial.
Acepromazine (ACP) is a tranquilliser, sometimes prescribed by vets in tablet form to treat dog anxiety. However, it’s recently come to light that this tranquilliser may sedate dogs physically, without necessarily removing the underlying negative, anxious emotions. In this way, ACP might act like chemical straight jacket, and so using ACP to try and make your anxious dog calm should really not be recommended, pending further clarifying research.
Sileo oromucosal gel for dogs is the first (and at the time of writing, the only) FDA approved treatment for dogs suffering from aversion to loud noises such as fireworks, thunder and construction sounds. Sileo contains dexmedetomidine, which has sedative and anxiety relieving effects that last for about 2-3 hours after oral dosing. Sileo is available to purchase online with a prescription provided by your dog’s veterinarian.
How Can I Calm my Dog’s Anxiety Naturally?
If you’re wondering how to calm an anxious dog naturally, consider trying an Adaptil diffuser, Zlykene calming supplement, massage, exercise, interactive toys, comforting physical touch, music therapy, or a ThunderShirt. Also, don’t forget to start work with desensitization and counterconditioning training sessions.
How do You Comfort a Stressed Dog?
Comforting physical touch, pheromone diffusers, massage, exercise, interactive toys and pressure vests such as ThunderShirt are particularly effective non-pharmaceutical ways to calm your dog. If your pet is still distressed despite these tools, you should consult with a vet.