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It’s 2021. You probably have anxiety, a dog, and perhaps also a dog with anxiety. In addition to the usual stressors, from fireworks to stranger danger, the pandemic has rattled the routines of these creatures of habit. While business is booming for therapy apps and antidepressants that help you cope, how can you alleviate your pet’s anxiety? We asked a few veterinarians how they diagnose anxiety in animals, what behavioral changes pet parents should make first, and when it’s time to think about prescribing Prozac.
Signs of depression or anxiety
Depression in dogs often mimics that in humans: they will act withdrawn or isolate themselves, they’ll lose interest in activities they usually love, and there will be changes in their appetite or sleeping habits. On the other hand, unaccountable aggression, accidents in the house despite being potty-trained, and other destructive behaviors all point to anxiety. “There are a number of behaviors a pet parent may see, including pacing, excessive panting, trembling, whining or vocalizing, holding the tail down, and licking parts of the body excessively, such as the front paws,” says veterinarian Dr. John Iovino, DVM. “There can be many other odd behaviors that don’t fit the normal which can also allude to potential anxiety, such as escapist behavior.”
These signs can signal a medical condition, so if your dog isn’t acting like themselves, the first step it to get a full workup at your vet to check for any underlying causes. Until then, don’t try to snap your pet out of their sulk with an invigorating activity when they could be suffering from arthritis or an illness. Once health issues and injuries are ruled out, you can take anxiety or depression into account.
Common causes of anxiety
Does your pet go wild when you leave them alone, chewing everything from wires to the wall from stress? Or does the sound of a car backfiring or Fourth of July fireworks find them cowering in a corner, unable to shake the fear? A 2020 study found that 72% of dogs suffer from anxiety — with separation, fear of strangers, and sensitivity to noise to blame for most of the cases. Same, dogs, same.
“One common reason [for anxiety] is lack of socialization as dogs grow and develop,” says Dr. Iovino. “The more events and experiences a dog can have, the calmer they can be when challenged with negative experiences. In addition, dogs can develop fear or anxiety towards other dogs if they have a bad experience such as getting into a fight with another dog.”
Other causes, adds veterinarian Dr. Seth Vredenburg, DVM, include “separation anxiety, noise phobias, and sometimes even items of clothing like a hat. There are so many things that our dogs may see as strange or unusual that can cause some level of anxiety. How we react to these things may influence our dog’s reaction.”
Training before medicating
Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinarian at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital, recommends making behavioral changes before resorting to medication. “[For separation anxiety] start by training your dog to learn to stay home alone. This usually starts with leaving for a few minutes at a time, then coming right back inside,” she says. Going forward, don’t make a big deal when you leave the house and slowly increase your time away as your dog gets more comfortable. And if you come home and they haven’t been destructive, reward them with praise and a treat.
For situational anxiety, removing your dog from what’s triggering them may seem like an obvious solution. But if the phobia is unavoidable, like fireworks, a Thundershirt, CBD treats, and calming pheromones like Adaptil can alleviate some anxiety. “Long term, what will mostly help calm a dog down during anxious events is working diligently to desensitize them to this fear through training techniques,” says Dr. Iovino. “This process can take weeks to months before you see less anxiety.”
When medication can help
Anti-anxiety medication can put your dog in a calmer state of mind so that they’re able to better absorb the training, but medication isn’t a silver bullet. If you don’t have a lot of dog training experience, it’s probably a good idea to hire a professional behaviorist. “Just putting your pet on medication isn’t enough — you have to change their behavior as well — but it can help,” says Dr. Ashley Rossman, DVM, a veterinarian at Glen Oak Dog and Cat Hospital.
Which drug is right for your pet depends on the situation and their symptoms. Your vet will likely consider Prozac, Xanax, Amitriptyline, Buspirone, Clomicalm, Sileo, Valium, Ativan, Paxil, and Zoloft. If a few of these sound familiar, it’s because some human anti-anxiety medication has been FDA-approved for use in dogs — but don’t give your dog your pills because they can have awful side effects including increased anxieties and irregular heart rate when not prescribed and dosed by a licensed veterinarian. Dr. Ochoa typically turns to Prozac for separation anxiety and aggression. If your pet has more intermittent anxiety (again: fireworks), she’ll opt for calming Trazadone. “Some dogs also need a calming medication when they go to the vet’s office or groomer,” she adds.
Depression in dogs is less common, and thus less often treated medically. But big changes in the household — from the addition of a new pet to the loss of another pet — can cause a dog to become despondent. Unlike us, pets usually bounce back quickly from depressive episodes, and rewarding happy behavior like playfulness and a wagging tail will hasten the healing process. If their mood doesn’t lighten, a vet may prescribe medication as a temporary measure to take the edge off.
Prozac may not be a DEA-controlled substance and is generally well-tolerated by humans and animals alike, but all medication requires monitoring. “I like to check bloodwork at least once a year when dogs are on it,” says Dr. Rossman. It isn’t a quick fix either. Some dogs will need medication for the rest of their lives, while others can be weaned off it if they respond to training. Ultimately, it depends on the individual dog and the severity of their behavior. Adds Dr. Rossman, “sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to hit a steady-state level, so dogs are normally [medicated] for at least a few months to get a feeling for how it’s working. It’s a long-term commitment.”
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Colleen Stinchcombe lives near Seattle, WA, where she works as a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her two rescue pups wish she were a professional ball-thrower.