When talking about the mental status of a dog, the terms “stress” and “anxiety” are often used together; they do present very similar signs. Stress is when a dog’s body reacts to a dangerous or threatening situation. Anxiety, however, is the body’s reaction to stress, and it prepares the dog for a scary situation that has not yet necessarily even occurred. Stress is often a short-lived state, whereas anxiety may persist and last for a long time. The signs of stress and anxiety vary from strong to mild, and they differ from dog to dog. Short-term stress is a good sign when it occurs in a dangerous or threatening situation - it shows, that the animal knows when to protect itself. Prolonged stress and anxiety, however, can cause problems when there is no real threat. In this case, the dog is scared and restless in a situation where it’s supposed to be relaxed.
A dog’s stress and anxiety may be triggered by a variety of different extrinsic factors such as noises, places, objects, people, or other dogs. Anxiety-provoking factors might be, for example, fireworks, thunderstorms, cars, stairs, vacuum cleaners, or visits to the veterinarian. Many small dogs get anxious in the presence of a bigger dog. Anxiety is often caused by trauma: something highly unpleasant (stressful) happened in the dog’s history, and it becomes anxious every time a similar situation comes by. The trauma may be physical or mental, and it may trigger anxiety in any dog, regardless of its age or size. Different genetic or neurological disorders, such as dementia, may also cause anxiety in dogs.
An anxious or stressed dog is often restless. The dog may whine, bark, pant, drool, or pace. In a stressful situation, the dog may change its facial expression and body position; it might crouch, flatten its ears against its head and tuck its tail between its legs. An anxious dog can soil the house, even when it’s house-trained. A dog that usually has a good appetite might change its rhythm of eating or start skipping meals entirely. Via displacement behavior, the dog may try to calm itself down, as though removing itself from the stressful or anxiety-provoking situation. Common displacement behaviors are yawning and lip licking. The pet might also try to remove itself physically from the situation by hiding behind the owner or furniture, for example. In some cases, the dog may respond to stress by aggression. This may show as growling, barking, and biting. The dog may shed its fur, and its back hair might rise up.
Separation anxiety occurs when the dog is left alone. It affects approximately 20% of dogs. As the members of the pack leave and the dog is left alone, it is unable to calm itself down but gets anxious instead. Typical signs of separation anxiety are whining, barking, pacing, restlessness, and soiling the house. The dog might destroy the furniture or owner’s other belongings, or scratch the walls and the doorjambs. When the pack members return home, the dog’s reaction might be overwhelmingly happy and exaggerated, and the animal may find it hard to calm itself down. Diagnosing separation anxiety is often difficult, as it is hard to distinguish whether the anxiety is triggered by the owner leaving or some other factor, e.g., a noise. Video material of a pet left alone is often highly valuable proof in order to make a diagnosis.
Stress and anxiety worsen the life quality of the dog. They are often hard for the owner as well. However, it is possible to overcome these issues by proper, well-planned treatment. The owner should understand, that some of the behavioral issues demand hard work and training, as well as patience. If there is more than one person belonging to the dog’s family, it is important that everyone commit to the training. It is also important that the owner recognizes the situations and factors that trigger the dog’s stress-reaction and provoke its anxiety. The treatment depends highly on the dog and the situation, and it is important to ask for help from a professional. A wrong kind of treatment may even worsen the situation. In most cases, a veterinarian together with a professional dog trainer will come up with a treatment plan, where training and medicine are combined. Sometimes, medicine is not necessary, but training the dog is enough. However, medicating the dog alone is rarely a sufficient treatment. In order to cease the dog’s unwanted behavioral patterns, a lot of time and effort is demanded from the owner. Nonetheless, it is worth the trouble, and in the best-case scenario may bring the dog and the owner closer together.
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