There are a myriad of reasons why your dog may be an anxious individual. Increasingly in human medicine, we have recognised how important our mental health is. And whilst arguably not totally transferable to our canine counterparts, there are perhaps some not dissimilar issues with anxiety that exist in some particular dogs.
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Bred for what role?
Certain breeds of dog may be renowned for having higher levels of physical, social or emotional need. And therefore also, for displaying increased behavioural manifestations of anxiety related disease (such as separation anxiety). Most dog breeds were specifically bred over hundreds of years, for a precisely designated role and purpose. Unfortunately, sometimes the “wrong” breed of dog ends up in the “wrong” home. (In terms of suitability, lifestyle and previous owner experience). The appropriateness of breed choice for any potential new dog owner, would be a sensible topic to discuss with your veterinary surgeon, experienced dog-owning friends, family and the breeder or rescue centre from where you intend to acquire any new pet.
Early life factors
Some factors relating to anxiety, may stem from issues your dog experienced very early on in life. Certainly, for some rescue or former street dogs, sadly any negative or stressful experience that they have been exposed to early in life (and potentially even in utero itself too), may form a basis for anxiety later in life. This is thought to relate to cortisol (a stress hormone) and other chemical markers of the “flight or fight” response in both the pup and the dam. In certain situations, anxiety may sadly, almost be considered as “programmed” into the dog from an exceptionally young age. Anxiety may be associated with certain situations, other dogs, other humans, a combination of the above, or a totally unique or niche set of circumstances.
Another, sadly increasing, cause of canine anxiety, comes courtesy of that well known global pandemic, COVID-19. During the country’s lockdowns, the nation experienced a surge in both puppy and dog ownership. Understandably, with all of us being around the home more, many thousands of new dog owners were born, as we looked to enrich our home lives and suddenly had the time available to us to care for a dog and all that it entails. For puppies in particular, during their sensitive early weeks of socialisation pups were likely to constantly be around family members. Coupled with this, was a likely lack of exposure to many normal life experiences outside of the home. Arguably, this was neither a normal life reality for those pups; nor one which would likely be sustained in the long-term, at the same severity, intensity or frequency.
Eventually, as we came out of the pandemic, work patterns normalised again; and many of us were called back into the workplace. Perhaps understandably at this stage, young adult dogs may have found this confusing and unsettling. In addition, for some breeds, this may have led to an increase in anxiety type behaviour. Certainly, in veterinary practice, anxiety has manifested as increasingly reported numbers of cases of separation anxiety; and sadly, increased levels of fear related anxiety or aggression in many dogs coming into the clinic.
Your dog may have been born into a high-quality breeder’s home, or alternatively been bred from a family situation and had positive and wide-ranging experiences as a puppy; however something experienced later in life, has set a bar for anxiety. Take, for example, the not uncommonly seen middle age onset of firework or noise phobia. Many dogs will understandably develop an aversion to loud, unpredictable bangs and show increased levels of anxiety as a result. Such anxiety typically peaks after a number of years exposure and once acquired, this noise phobia can spread to include additional (but not directly similar), loud or unpredictable noises (such as thunder).
What to do?
If you feel that your pet is overly anxious or is increasingly displaying behaviour of such, it would first be worth booking a consultation with your veterinary surgeon to discuss this further. There are many symptoms that can be associated with anxiety; including, but not excluded to, excessive barking, aggression, fear type behaviours, hiding and stereotypical (repetitive) behaviours.
It is of utmost importance to first talk through these issues with your vet in conjunction with them conducting a full clinical examination of your dog.
Certain diseases (such as cognitive dysfunction syndrome, painful conditions, skin or gastrointestinal disease) may have similar or overlapping presentations of clinical signs. And, as such, your vet may recommend investigations such as blood tests, x-rays, or ultrasound examinations first.
Once any potential differential diagnoses have been ruled out, your vet may suggest a referral to a specialist behaviourist; and alongside that, maybe medication too. For certain conditions, irrespective of the cause or origins, a long-term behavioural modification strategy or plan is likely to need to be implemented. As such, it is important to realise that much of any progress and improvement seen, will be down to the effort and time invested in your dog.
Some conditions, such as firework phobias are clearly initially finite and localised. So treatment and behaviour modification can be expected to be significantly easier than that for separation anxiety or dog related aggression. Medications used for such conditions may be prescribed by your vet. But it is prudent to remember that they will not work alone without input from a qualified clinical animal behaviourist; they may have mild side effects associated with them; and also can take some time to show any beneficial effect.