Pet Talk: Context critical when treating anxiety in dogs

By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

What can cause anxiety in dogs?

Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois-Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine and resident of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, says the causes are as varied as the approaches for reducing that anxiety, and the cause must be explored in order to determine the best response.

"Some animals may be predisposed to developing anxiety due to their genetics," Ballantyne said. "Other animals become fearful or anxious because of experiences during early development. Learning experiences throughout life can also contribute."

She said triggers for a pet's anxiety can be "social," referring to interactions with other people or animals, or "environmental," such as noises, sights, smells and the general living conditions.

Common signs of anxiety in dogs include regular pacing, panting, lip licking, yawning, hyper vigilance (scanning the environment regularly), trembling, hyper salivation, hiding and frequent barking or whining.

"You have to keep the context of the behaviors in mind when trying to determine the cause of them," Ballantyne said. "A dog that yawns right before bedtime is likely doing so because he is tired, while a dog that yawns while wide awake — for example, an animal in the hospital for a routine examination — is most likely fearful or anxious."

Owners often ask how they should respond to their dog's anxious behaviors. Ballantyne said the appropriate response is going to be dependent on the context in which the behavior occurs.

One thing is clear, though: "Owners should never respond to anxious behaviors with corrections, such as verbal or physical punishments," she said. "Punishing the pet will only exacerbate his or her anxiety."

The first step in determining treatment options is an evaluation that includes a detailed history to identify factors that contribute to the anxiety.

Ballantyne said this evaluation should include assessment of the dog's management, home environment, daily routine and social dynamics in the household, in addition to specific examples of anxious behaviors.

Details that a behavioral consultant will want to know include who was involved, where and when the behavior occurred, what the dog did, how the owners responded to the behavior and how the incident was resolved.

Treatment strategies commonly include a combination of management to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, behavior modification to alter the dog's association and response to triggering stimuli and potentially anti-anxiety medications to reduce the intensity of the anxious response.

Some owners ask if crating an anxious pet is an appropriate response. Again, the answer depends on the context in which the anxiety occurs, as well as the dog's history with crate training.

Ballantyne said for dogs with separation anxiety or noise phobias, crating is not recommended if the dog has not previously been trained to accept confinement or has a history of trying to escape the crate.

"Many dogs hurt themselves during escape attempts, and crate confinement can escalate their anxiety and panic," she said. In other cases, dogs may actively seek out their crate as a "safe place" when feeling anxious or fearful.

"This is why a thorough history is so important in coming up with an appropriate treatment plan," Ballantyne said.

You can find veterinarians with an interest in animal behavior through the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior at avsabonline.org and through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists at dacvb.org.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

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