Here comes the thunderstorm…and your dog is pacing around the house, and he’s completely inconsolable! Or perhaps your buddy shreds the mini blinds and eats the couch cushions when you’re at work. Maybe Fido growls and tries to bite your hand when you attempt to leash him. Unfortunately, these are all very common behavioral issues that are attributed to some form of canine anxiety or phobia.
Anxiety and Phobias – What’s The Difference?
First, it might make more sense to define the difference between anxiety and phobia. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but knowing the distinction can help your vet define the problem and treat your pooch.
An anxiety is a feeling or condition of distress, often prolonged or routine, due to external causes or triggers.
Having a phobia means fearing a situation (like being left alone) or an object (like shadows). Thunder, loud noises, shadows, flying, or car rides are examples of phobias.
Is It Possible For My Dog to Have Both?
There are multiple anxiety disorders, and just as many phobias that prompt those conditions. And it is not uncommon for an animal to suffer more than one simultaneously. In an AMVA case study performed in 2001, 141 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia or noise phobia were behaviorally evaluated to determine the potential that the three conditions may be associated – that presence of one condition may predispose the animal to any of the other two. The interesting result? Probability was high that dogs diagnosed with one form of anxiety may indeed have one or more of the others, and should be evaluated accordingly.
What Type of Anxiety or Phobia Does My Dog Have?
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is attributed to improper early and developmental socialization, and manifests in a heightened state of alert. Dogs experiencing generalized anxiety disorder endure emotional distress and have difficulty adjusting when they cannot feel safe and settled. This condition worsens with constant adjustments in their environment, new and different social interactions or unpredictable daily routines.
Separation Anxiety: Because dogs are social animals, their place in their pack-family becomes fixed, and they become attached to owners. Dogs who become less independent and more reliant on constant human interaction may begin to exhibit destructive behavior when they are alone.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder results in extreme responses and behaviors caused by previous traumas or events. PTSD is difficult to specify since the dog cannot convey the traumatic event or what they may be experiencing mentally. Multiple therapies are recommended under the guidance of an animal behaviorist.
Common sources of canine noise phobias are fireworks, thunder, gunshots, vacuums, loud equipment or construction-related sounds.
Astraphobia, or the fear of thunder and lightning, is believed to be a combination of several triggers. Noise is the most obvious, but changes in barometric pressure and humidity may cause ear discomfort, as well as joint ache in dogs suffering from arthritis. Symptoms most often occur well before storm arrives, so preventative measures are critical.
Identify the Behaviors
Dogs suffering from anxiety may exhibit a host of behaviors, some seeming rather innocuous and subtle at first, but will worsen if untreated. Such behaviors may include: pacing, panting, attention-seeking, destructiveness, hyperactivity, breaking housetraining (urination/defecation), hiding, escaping, licking, fur or foot chewing, yawning, shaking, barking, whining and aggression. Every dog is different; he may experience a few, or the full range of misconduct.
Pay attention to behavioral changes when doing new things, like riding in the car, socializing with other animals and meeting new guests. Rule out and correct common triggers like boredom, lack of exercise or medical conditions. Keep a journal if you begin to notice unusual behaviors so your vet or behavioralist can more easily formulate a comprehensive treatment plan.
Get Help to Manage the Behaviors and Ease the Anxiety
For anxieties related to trauma (PTSD) or astraphobia, deconditioning and desensitizing is possible with proper veterinary guidance and training. Generalized anxiety disorder may require longer-term administration of medication to manage any chemical imbalance and make the behavioral training more effective.
When implementing your vet’s recommended training or environmental changes, remember that dogs react to your behavior as their pack leader…so you might need some behavioral modification yourself! It may be helpful to try some of these tips when you sense your dog may becoming anxious (or in most instances, do your research and be prepared to try some of these methods in advance of the event, if predictable).
- Act normally, act calmly. The right attention, focusing on calming the dog, is appropriate. There are different schools of thought concerning attention to a panicked dog: 1) Comforting rewards the panicked dog, so don’t do it, vs 2) If comfort is necessary to calm, then that’s the objective.
- Praise calm behavior. Try to distract with playful engagement, if the dog will respond.
- Don’t leave your dog outside; astraphobic dogs may severely injure themselves trying to escape the storm, or may be hit by a vehicle in their flight. Any desensitization therapy should be controlled and part of a vet-recommended plan.
- Create a safe, comfortable, soundproof den for your dog (not completely enclosed or confined, though) with his favorite toy. Try introducing your smell for comfort – your blanket or article of clothing.
- Your vet may recommend that you try calmative therapies: compression wraps, music, dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) or essential oils (lavender has been proven to have a calming effect on dogs with travel-induced excitement according to this study).
Anxiety and phobias, as common as they are in our buddies, can be frustrating, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, many dogs may benefit greatly from a comprehensive treatment plan that includes behavior and environmental modification, therapy and medication for chemical imbalance.
Have certain tactics, environmental changes or products helped your dog with anxiety or phobia? Share your tips below!
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