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Calming the fear factor – Anxiety in dogs

Did you know that dogs can suffer from anxiety? The good news is it’s possible to manage the condition and help your canine companion get the most out of life.

We all feel anxious, worried or uneasy about things every now and then. When those feelings don’t go away, however, or when they occur for no real reason, an anxiety disorder could be the cause.

Research shows that about one in five people will experience an anxiety disorder at some stage and, according to veterinary specialist in animal behaviour Dr Kersti Seksel, the statistics are the same for dogs.

"There are times when being anxious about something is normal. For humans, being scared of spiders or heights is sensible, because without that fear you might pick up a funnel-web or walk off a cliff,” Dr Seksel explains. “But anxious dogs worry about lots of things [without] rhyme or reason."

Tex, a seven-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder last year after several months of increasingly worrying behaviour.

"He was afraid of bikes, scooters and skateboards, terrified of children, and continually tried to attack other dogs," says his owner, Sydney writer Laura Greaves. “It was awful. He was clearly highly agitated and miserable, and I was constantly on edge, worrying about what he might do next.

Spot the signs

So how do you know if your dog has an anxiety disorder? Sometimes it’s very obvious – your dog might turn into a snarling, yapping demon at the sight of a lawnmower, for example. But often the signs are much more subtle.

Responding to non-threatening situations as if they were threatening is a telltale sign, says Dr Seksel. "A dog that doesn’t have an anxiety disorder probably wouldn’t be worried about walking over a grate or going up a set of stairs, but [an anxious] dog may perceive those things as potentially harmful to him," she says.

A dog that feels threatened will likely display one or more of the ‘four Fs’: fight, flight, freeze or fidget. Fighting means attacking the perceived threat, while flight means running away from it. As the name suggests, freezing is when the dog goes statue-still. Fidgeting might mean yawning, stretching, scratching or licking his lips – all common dog behaviours, but it’s the context that could indicate anxiety.

"They’re normal responses, but not in the context in which they occur. If the dog has just had a meal, licking his lips is a normal thing to do, but if he’s walking along the street and suddenly starts doing it, you’ve got to start thinking, 'Okay, the dog is worried about something,'" Dr Seksel explains.

Where to get help

If your dog is showing signs of suffering from anxiety, you must seek professional help. According to Dr Seksel, dogs whose anxiety is left untreated have a significantly reduced life span and are more likely to suffer from skin diseases and gastrointestinal upsets. It’s also important to remember that anxiety is a medical condition caused by complex neurological and neurochemical factors. It is not caused by anything you did or didn’t do as a dog owner.

Your first port of call should be your vet. They’ll do a thorough examination to rule out any underlying physical causes for the behaviour; sometimes a dog in pain can display similar behaviour to a pooch with an anxiety disorder.

If necessary, your vet can then refer you to a qualified veterinary behaviourist. Beware self-styled ‘behaviour specialists’ without any actual qualifications, Dr Seksel warns.

"Because anxiety and phobias are medical issues, you should always see your vet first," she explains. "Only vets are legally allowed to diagnose problems and prescribe medication, and only vets with postgraduate qualifications are allowed to call themselves specialists."

Laura Greaves says antidepressant medication, along with training and environmental modification, has worked wonders for her dog, Tex. "He’s much calmer when he encounters one of his known triggers and is clearly so much happier now," she says.

"He seeks out cuddles and affection now, whereas before he was diagnosed he would avoid human contact at all costs. He definitely has a new lease on life."

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