Canine Wellness: How to Alleviate and Treat Anxiety

Providing the proper care for your pet is paramount, and that means attending to their physical and emotional health. If you’re questioning whether your pet’s poor behavior may be more than just the occasional bout of naughtiness, or if your pup is clearly suffering from anxiety, read on to see what our four Scouted animal experts have to share on how to attend to your furry friend’s mental health so they can lead their best, tail wagging-life.

Identifying anxiety. All pup parents and animal experts agree that the first hurdle in managing a dog’s poor behavior is correctly identifying if the problem is in fact anxiety. “Anxiety in pets can show itself in many different ways,” explains Josh Wilson, professional dog trainer and owner of Off Leash K9 Training in Hampton Roads, Virginia. “There are a few tell-tale indicators I always tell my clients to look for when it comes to an anxious pet, such as constant barking for no apparent reason, aggression and reactivity to people, urinating indoors, excessive licking or grooming to the point of hair loss or sores, and hiding or the alternate extreme of seeking attention.”

Not all anxiety is the same. Dr. Micah Woods, veterinarian and owner of Ooltewah Veterinary Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, shares that there are two common types of anxiety that your canine can suffer from, and it’s important to determine which you are dealing with. The first type is social anxiety, which occurs when your pet is in an environment they are unfamiliar with and can present as fear or aggression. Separation anxiety, the other big stress, happens when the pet is left alone, and can present as destructiveness or vocalization. 

The COVID effect. Stay-at-home orders over the past few years have had a tremendous effect on all family members, including your four-legged ones. Woods points out that socialization plummeted drastically during lock down, and your dogs likely only interacted with the same humans, in the same environment for months on end, making the now return to “normal” life an anxiety-inducing experience. This especially holds true for those that adopted puppies during the pandemic. Now that life has resumed some normalcy, and owners are back at work, anxiety issues arise. 

It’s time for training. Calling in an expert is always a good idea, especially one with expertise around animal anxiety. “Training helps the animal create coping mechanisms and regulate stress levels,” Woods explains. “For instance, learning and employing simple commands such as sit and place can help build confidence and provide a sense of stability that dogs crave.” Added benefits of training include allowing a dog to begin to have positive experiences and gain confidence in situations that may have caused anxiety in the past.

Walk, run, play. Heart-healthy exercise is a wonderful way to manage anxiety in dogs. Sarah Downey, owner of Adventure Pet Wellness in Denver, Colorado, leads daily trail hikes with packs of pups for the purpose of exercise and socialization. “Mental and physical stimulation is key when tackling the issue of anxiety in your canine,” Downey advises. “Exploring an exciting outdoor setting allows them to focus their energy on the world around them and the task at hand—and not on their anxiety.” She goes on to tell us that the more positive experiences they have to draw from out in the world, the better their library from which they can access their behavioral choices will become. “All dogs want to know is that the world around them is a safe, fun place.”

Know when it’s time to medicate. Medicating your pet is a personal decision. If you’re feeling torn about it, Woods advises assessing whether the dog’s behavior is impeding the quality of life for both the owner and pet. If so, it’s time to look at medication options. Woods adds that medication is generally a last resort, as once medicated, it can be difficult to wean a pup off of them. “Because dogs can’t talk to tell you they are all better, medication generally ends up being prescribed for the rest of their lives.” With this in mind, Woods tries to discourage medicating young pets, because they still have time to retrain their behavior away from the anxiety.

The 411 on pharmaceuticals. Fluoxetine has become so popular for treating canine anxiety that the colloquial term “puppy prozac” is now known near and far. If you’re thinking about putting your pup on this daily drug, Woods shares a few things that you should be aware of. “This is daily medication that will build in your dog’s system, so I always suggest waiting a minimum of three months before making any future determinations on dosage or effectiveness.” If you’re not ready to commit to a daily prescription, Woods suggests using Xanax for situational sedation. This could include anxiety inducing scenarios like vet appointments, gatherings in your home, or being dropped off for boarding.

Consider a more holistic approach. If you’d like to avoid the use of prescription drugs, holistic treatments can be a great alternative to explore. Dr. Elvira Hoskins and Dr. Shannon Indoe, veterinarians and co-owners of Highland Holistic Veterinary Care in Charlottesville, Virginia, both recommend supplements that contain theanine, tryptophan, taurine, or western herbs such as valerian, chamomile, and passion flower, all of which have calming effects. Other great, non-medicinal options include acupuncture or acupressure, massage, and calming music. 

Harnessing hemp. The use of CBD in the form of hemp oil is another great medical alternative that can be effective in reducing anxiety in dogs. Hoskins and Indoe advise either administering hemp oil two hours prior to a stressful event or on a regular basis for generalized anxiety, depending on the specific needs of your pet. Indoe also emphasizes how important it is to get CBD from a reputable source. “Make sure the products you use have a certificate of analysis (COA) and third party testing. Pets should not be given marijuana which contains high levels of THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid, as dogs have more cannabinoid receptors in their brains which mean the effects are more dramatic and potentially toxic when compared to humans.”

A focus on the owner. A parting thought from Dr. Hoskins and a great reminder all around, is that dog’s can easily sense their owners anxiety, so making sure you have your own self-care practices to decrease stress in yourself is important. Because sometimes all you need for a happy pup is a happy owner.

TSG Tip 452 from Josh Wilson, professional dog trainer and owner of Off Leash K9 Training in Hampton Roads, Virginia; Dr. Micah Woods, veterinarian and owner of Ooltewah Veterinary Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee; Sarah Downey, owner of Adventure Pet Wellness in Denver, Colorado; Dr. Elvira Hoskins and Dr. Shannon Indoe, veterinarians and co-owners of Highland Holistic Veterinary Care in Charlottesville, Virginia. Off Leash K9 Training appears in The Scout Guide Williamsburg & The Chesapeake Bay. Ooltewah Veterinary Hospital appears in The Scout Guide Chattanooga. Adventure Pet Wellness appears in The Scout Guide Denver. Highland Holistic Veterinary Care appears in The Scout Guide Charlottesville