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Signs of Stress and Anxiety in Dogs: A Guide for Pet Owners

There are a large number of medical and behavioral issues that are worsened or even triggered by stress in our canine companions. Signs can be subtle and easily missed, and many owners mistake anxiety for "bad behavior" or disobedience.

If you are an owner, it is essential to recognize the critical signs of stress in your dog and know how to react accordingly. By acknowledging and preventing stressful situations, you can improve harmony within your home and create a happier and even healthier pet.

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Understanding stress and anxiety in dogs

Stress and anxiety are not easily defined and can manifest in a number of ways. Stress is generally thought of as a feeling of emotional and mental distress or tension in direct response to a threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is anticipation of stress and the feeling this causes.

Thankfully, our knowledge of these states of mind in dogs is growing in recent years. Let’s look deeper into what stress and anxiety may look like and the different ways they present.

Acute stress

Short-term or more acute stress is evident when dogs are put in certain situations, such as when brought to the vet for a check-up or when being groomed. This sort of stress only lasts for a short period, while the "scary event" happens for a few minutes or hours after.

Signs of stress in dogs during a worrying event come on quickly and can include:

  • Panting (a dog stress panting will breathe rapidly with their mouth open, even though they are not warm)
  • Lip licking or yawning
  • Dilated pupils, whale eyes (opening eyes wide so the whites are more visible) or rapid blinking
  • Ears pinned back against head
  • Tucking tail
  • Hiding or pulling away, or simply shifting their weight back
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Increased shedding
  • Vocalizations (whining, whimpering, howling)
  • Nervous poops (acute diarrhea)
  • Refusing foods, even treats

As you can see from the list above, we can learn a lot from a dog's body language. We should look to how they are acting and what they are doing, to gauge their stress levels. By picking up on early changes in body language, you can pinpoint when your dog is starting to feel overwhelmed.

Chronic stress

A dog may be chronically stressed if, for example, it is in a household that does not meet its needs. This may mean living with pets it has not been well socialized with, being left alone every day when it has separation anxiety, an older dog getting stressed by new puppy behavior, or a pet being in fear of an owner who is using punishments and negative reinforcements in their training. Also, just like people, some dogs have generalized anxiety disorders or fears and phobias that can contribute to a chronic state of unease

Some of the signs of chronic stress in dogs are:

  • Over-grooming (licking or chewing to excess)
  • Destructive behavior or digging
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping more or less than usual)
  • Aggression (growling, snapping, biting), an especially concerning sign requiring an urgent vet visit and consultation with a behaviorist
  • Excessive barking, which may last hours
  • Difficulty complying with their training sessions
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Weight loss
  • Soiling indoors

Do keep in mind that, while these signs can all be linked to stress, there are medical issues that can cause many of these signs.

What to do if you think your dog is stressed or anxious

First and foremost, you will want to identify the source of the anxiety; otherwise, you will struggle to get on top of things. If anxiety is a new issue, consider what's recently changed in your dog’s home life or routine. If your dog has been re-homed, consider how it was raised when younger and what sort of home it came from.

Be sure to remove your dog from any immediate stressor as soon as you can. Never punish your dog for acting how they are; it is involuntary. Be sure to give them time to gather their senses and consider distracting them with e.g. some simple commands as well as high value treats.

If you can’t uncover a cause for the anxiety, it’s sensible to consult a vet. This is because an underlying medical issue could drive their signs. Canine dementia, or a source of chronic pain (like arthritis), will sometimes be the culprit.

Some of the more common treatment options for generalized anxiety would include providing ample physical stimulation and mental enrichment, using anxiolytic medication, and/or starting a training program under the guidance of a qualified behaviorist. There is also a great deal of ongoing research into the use of CBD.

Preventing stress and anxiety in dogs

While you can’t always guarantee a stress-free environment, you can do plenty of things to try to keep your dog’s life calm and peaceful.

If you have a puppy be sure to properly socialize and safely expose them to new things during 3-14 weeks of age (socialization window).

You want to maintain a predictable routine whenever possible so your dog can roughly guess what is coming next throughout the day. Most find this very reassuring. This can include similar feeding and walking times each day.

A busy dog is a happy dog. When a dog is bored and not receiving enough physical or mental stimulation, it is not unusual for them to struggle to cope with daily stresses and develop behavioral problems. This can mean a combination of walks (in different areas along different routes), swims, canine agility, food puzzles, interactive toys, etc. You can also use calming aids, such as plug-in pheromones.

You should also train your dog daily using positive reinforcement methods. A common misconception is that only puppies need training. Adults and seniors benefit from plenty of positive training to boost their confidence.

Recognizing and preventing anxious behaviors is critical for canine mental well-being and for fostering a harmonious relationship with you. By understanding the subtle signs of stress, you can take proactive steps to address root causes and implement coping strategies.

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