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Tips and tricks for addressing canine anxiety
Thrive Pet Healthcare veterinarian attributes rise in anxiety to lack of socialization during pandemic
May marks Mental Health Awareness Month for humans while the first week of the month is Dog Anxiety Awareness Week. In a company release,1 Kate Thomas, DVM, medical director at 2 Thrive Pet Healthcare locations in the Boston area notes that though dogs offer a plethora of mental health benefits to humans, dog owners should be aware of anxiety-related behaviors in their dogs and take measures to address anxiety before it gets out of hand.
Thomas added that her hospitals have seen more dogs displaying generalized anxiety and fears over the last several months. This may be due to the lack of socialization they experienced during the pandemic, she said. “As dog owners started returning to work, school, and other activities when pandemic measures were lifted, we expected to see a lot of dogs with separation anxiety. But that’s not what happened,” Thomas explained.1 “Instead, we’re seeing a fair number of dogs that were acquired during the pandemic come into our hospitals with anxiety-related behaviors that are typical of dogs that received limited socialization.”
Dogs can have a genetic predisposition to anxiety or become anxious at a young age when socialization is critical. They can also become anxious as a result of experiences and interactions after the critical socialization period. “Signs of fear and anxiety in dogs may include cowering, hiding, dilated pupils, drooling, withdrawal, lip licking, yawning, and trembling,” said Thomas.
Some therapies to address anxiety include prevention tactics, dietary supplementation, and special forms of training. Thomas provides these tips to dog owners for recognizing and treating anxiety in dogs1:
- Increase exercise. Research has shown that higher levels of exercise in dogs are associated with lower levels of aggression, fear, and anxiety.
- Use counter conditioning. When a dog is acting fearful, reduce the stimulus (move away from it) until the pet is relaxed, then give the “sit” command and praise or play a fun game. The goal is to link the formerly fearful stimulus with the positive counter experience.
- Use systematic desensitization. Provide a means of safely exposing the pet to the anxiety or fear producing stimulus at or below the level at which fear is likely to be exhibited, then implement counter-conditioning measures.
Thomas encourages dog owners to not punish anxious behavior, but rather focus on systematic desensitization to specific triggers, using counter conditioning. Medication can be used to treat a dog’s anxiety in certain scenarios, “but it is not a magic cure.”1
“Moderate to severe anxiety often responds best to a prescription anti-anxiety medication and behavior-modification training,” Thomas said. “No matter which medication your veterinarian chooses, you will also need to put behavior-modification protocols in place in order to help your dog work through their anxiety.”
Boston veterinarian seeing increase in dogs with anxiety; lack of socialization of pandemic-acquired dogs likely a factor. News release. Thrive Pet Healthcare. May 3, 2023. Accessed May 5, 2023.