There’s alot of perceived stigma about using medications to treat anxiety in dogs but this is a real disease that causes suffering if not treated appropriately. Here’s why in this case drugs are good....
Generalised anxiety is a common problem in dogs. If left untreated it can result in:
- Suffering for the dog
- Self harm during panic attacks
- Escape with the danger of injury
- Biting and other antisocial behaviours
- Abandonment, Surrender or Euthanasia
Dog anxiety is a real thing and if you don't treat it properly your dog will be suffering. There is no simple solution but a combination of gentle handling, retraining using positive methods instead of punishment and medication is required to overcome it. Too many dogs are suffering and being killed because people fail to recognise it, fail to accept it and refuse to treat it. If you think your dog might have anxiety...
Fear vs Anxiety
Fear is a normal response to some sort of stress and is a normal response designed to keep us safe. Anxiety can be considered an extension of fear. The stressor may have gone away but the feelings associated with the fear do not resolve. The animal remains in a heightened state of arousal and does not return to normal.
There are lots of things that can lead to or that contribute to anxiety. Any event that causes fear can lead to it, especially if these events are repeated or occur over a long period of time. Some common triggers are:
- Attack by another dog
- Separation from a familiar environment or family group
- Fireworks going off in close vicinity
- Lack of socialisation as a pup
- Sudden change of routine
There can be many contributing factors that will lead to anxiety. In people around 45% of people will have a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime and it is now believed that that statistic is similar in dogs. There is some sort of genetic predisposition to develop anxiety which is why some develop it and some don’t under the exact same circumstances.
Judging whether a dog is anxious can be quite difficult as the range of behaviours they can show can be so varied. In general, anxious dogs will display a range of fearful behaviours and are highly aroused.
When a dog is subjected to stress they have 3 options.
- They can run away or try to escape (flight),
- They can bite back (fight) or
- They can fidget. Fidget behaviours are normal behaviours that are out of context. Some common ones that can be seen are:
- lip licking,
- yawning and
- tail wagging
Aggressive types of behaviour such as looking at you out of the corner of their eye, growling, crouching and snarling are often mistaken as signs of aggression and dominance. In truth this is the opposite to dominance. These dogs are fearful and expressing their fear externally.
Suppressing this behaviour by punishing it just increases the fear and stress levels of the dog. It does not address the underlying cause of the stress and leads to a dangerous situation where a dog will jump straight to biting without showing any warning (because you told them not to). Never reprimand or punish your dog for displaying any aggressive behaviours.
Never reprimand or punish your dog for displaying any aggressive behaviours.
While highly anxious dogs may show many of these signs of stress, they don’t always do that and some dogs may just “go nuts” when they are in a high stress situation such as at parties, when visiting the vet or groomer or when around other dogs.
How Medication can help
So how can medications help? While it is important that the dog is put into a low stress environment and the type of training you use is positive and fear-free it is equally important that the underlying medical condition is addressed. If you just remove the stimulus the fear will go away in a normal animal but in an anxious animal that fear level remains, even though the stressful thing has gone away. Using medications we can reduce these anxiety levels and get the animal back to a normal baseline. In general this will take a long time to happen. We’re talking months, sometimes years here, not weeks. It takes time for the medication to actually work, but it also takes time for the dog to learn new ways to react to stress.
These medications do not change the personality of the dog. They are still the exact same dog but they do not suffer with anxiety. The may be less interactive and sleep more but generally this is just because they are relaxed and this is not a bad thing!
There are broadly 2 types of medications that are used:
- The first are medications that are used in cases where the animal has an anxiety that has a specific trigger such as when being rehomed, travelling, or during storms or at times of fireworks. This medications are only short term and are just used when the stimulus is around.
- The second type of medications are antidepressant/antianxiety medications and are used long term to normalise the chemical levels in the brain. These medications are given daily or twice daily and are given regardless of the stimulus’ presence.
A common time we will often use these medications is in rescue dogs that have often been subjected to various, at times unknown, traumas. This may include abandonment, abuse or being loose and chased off, living wild. They are then placed in a pound surrounded by other barking dogs before finally arriving with someone to provide a safe, caring environment. While these animals are now in a safe, low stress environment their anxiety levels are often very high due to their stressful experiences.
While being rehomed the dogs are again subjected to stress and it will take time for them to settle into their new environment. In this sort of situation it is really important that the dog remains on their anti-anxiety medication. Despite the fact that the new owners environment is no doubt loving and caring it still requires a change in routine for the dog and as we discussed previously this is a stress for the dog. Removal of the medication at this point will be disastrous.
Withdrawing from medication
Withdrawal from medications should never occur until the animal is well clear of any stressors and not displaying an anxious behaviour at all. Suddenly withdrawing medication such as this can result in a bounce back effect to the anxious state. They are slowly tapered and withdrawn over a long period of time.
Occasionally dogs may need to be on medication permanently. Is this really a bad thing? Without medication these dogs are suffering, the incidence of any side effects is extremely low and we know that on medication they can live a normal life. The pounds are full of animals that have been surrendered or abandoned due to untreated anxiety disorders.
If you think your dog might have anxiety....