Does Your Pup Need a Chill Pill?

No worries. There’s help for canine anxiety, including medication and counterconditioning.

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With pets and humans spending more time together than ever, we’re more in tune with our dogs. This comes in handy when our pets begin showing signs of medical ailments, whether physical or mental. Yep, you read that right: Mental health is a concern for pets, too.

Sometimes the signs are obvious, but they can also be subtle. Anxiety can happen for many reasons. Think back on your dog’s history to identify any possible triggers.

“Anxiety is the apprehension caused by the fear or anticipation of future danger,” said Doug Mader, D.V.M., a triple board-certified veterinary specialist in Marathon, Florida. “For instance, if a dog has had bad experiences with loud noises, such as thunder or fireworks, he might show anxiety in the presence of a noisy situation.”

A somewhat recent advance in mental health management for pets is the use of anti-anxiety medications, sometimes light-heartedly called “puppy Prozac.” Sound crazy? Believe it or not, many vets have seen a lot of success using these types of drugs.

In the right cases and with the proper dosage, medications can work effectively, but drugs alone are not enough.

“The drugs act to downregulate the sensitivity of the receptors that initiate the anxiety response,” Dr. Mader said. “Medications help, but generally, behavioral conditioning is also necessary to get the maximum benefit from any of the anti-anxiety drugs.”

Dog eating a treat by Shutterstock.
Dog eating a treat by Shutterstock.

Counterconditioning is a positive training technique in which you change a negative association into a positive one. You can do this by pairing something that upsets your dog (for instance, thunder) with something pleasant, like a treat. Eventually, the dog will associate the formerly scary thing with something he loves, like getting a yummy snack.

If your dog needs help with anxiety, start with a visit to your regular vet, and ask for a referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.“There are veterinarians who specialize in behavior who can provide the ‘next level’ of help if the family veterinarian is not able,” Dr. Mader said.

Signs of anxiety

What might first appear to be quirky behavior could actually be a sign of something deeper. When dogs begin showing symptoms like these, anxiety might be to blame:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Scanning behaviors
  • Tail tucking
  • Excessive licking/biting
  • Increased vigilance
  • Diarrhea

Elisa Jordan

Elisa Jordan is a Southern California freelance writer specializing in pets. She has a terrier, Gidget, and a cat, Izzy.


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