Just like people, many dogs also suffer from mental illness throughout their lifetime. While we may be stressed by our email inbox, financial anxieties and keeping up with our social calendars, dogs are just as anxious by modern-day living.
Dogs bred to be working on farms or facilitating search and rescues are now being asked to live in suburban settings with minimal amounts of exercise and mental stimulation. Many dogs have also had to face the trauma of being rehomed or subjected to negative forms of training.
Have no fear though. Today’s pet parents have many approaches to recognize and alleviate anxiety in their dogs.
Symptoms of anxiety in dogs
How do you know if your dog is stressed or anxious? Symptoms include:
- Tense, tight-lipped mouth
- Tucked tail
- Urinating or defecating in the house
- Growling, snarling, lunging, biting
- Obsessive behaviors, such as licking or chewing
- Overeating or excessive water consumption
Causes of anxiety in dogs
Anxiety can be caused by many factors, including:
- Breed/genetic predisposition
- Not enough exercise or mental stimulation
- Negative training techniques
- Lack of socialization as a puppy
- Medical conditions including mental illness
Many effective tools can be used to help dogs with stress and anxiety. Following are the five most effective used in my practice.
- Exercise (physical/mental)
Exercise is the most underrated treatment for dog anxiety. Daily exercise, especially outside, can drastically change your pup’s brain chemistry for the better. Walking is like meditating for dogs, especially when they have the opportunity to sniff and meander. Other forms of exercise like hiking, running, agility training and playing fetch can quell anxiety when done regularly.
If your dog is overweight or lacks body condition, start slowly and gently increase the time and intensity of exercise to avoid injury. If you are unsure about the status of your dog’s physical condition, consult your veterinarian for clarification.
Chronic boredom is a one-way ticket to anxiety, and our dogs also require mental stimulation to exercise their brains. This can come in the form of a food puzzle, scent work or learning a new skill. Knowing your dog’s personality and what they like goes a long way in selecting these new activities.
- Environmental modifications
Creating a more peaceful and serene environment reduces your dog’s stress and anxiety. When possible, removing stressors from their daily environment can help increase overall happiness.
For example, close the curtains if seeing other people and animals is too stressful for your pup. Avoiding crowded parks and paths may be warranted if interacting with other unknown dogs is triggering.
Adding pheromones, sound machines and relaxing classical music are also easy ways to create a more peaceful environment.
- Behavioral modifications/training
Dog training is more than teaching your dog how to sit! Effective training can also teach them new ways to self soothe and redirect nervous energy. Learning new skills can be critical for dogs that are bred to be working. Breeds like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Australian Cattle Dogs are prone to anxiety if not given sufficient mental stimulation.
Training can also help expose your dog to new situations and help increase their tolerance to a variety of stimulations. Desensitizing your dog to these exposures is most successful when done in puppyhood, however it’s never too late to support your dog in adapting to life’s stressors.
When selecting a dog trainer or training method, ensure that only positive reinforcement training philosophies are used. Negative reinforcement training can have very damaging effects and even worsen anxiety in your dog. Negative methods include:
- electronic collars
- aggressive leash pulling
Trainers who use these methods to dominate dogs should be avoided.
For especially anxious dogs, pharmaceutical interventions like Prozac or other anti-anxiety medications can be extremely helpful during the training process. Many dog parents are concerned that these medications may be detrimental in the long term. This is simply not the case when administered under veterinary direction. Unmanaged anxiety can have more negative and long-lasting impacts on your dog’s physical health than anti-anxiety medication.
CBD is an excellent tool for the management of anxiety. CBD is a component of the hemp plant that helps increase serotonin, decrease inflammation and increase your dog’s overall sense of well-being. Other components of the hemp plant, such as CBG, CBN, terpenes and others, may also play important roles in the reduction of anxiety.
When choosing a CBD product for your dog, consider the following:
- Concentration. Many products labeled for pets are less concentrated and therefore may require higher volumes to reach therapeutic effect. I recommend using a product that is 30 milligrams of CBD per milliliter of oil. Formulations that are less concentrated may leave you trying to get several spoonfuls of CBD oil in your dog’s mouth. Formulations that are much more concentrated, while effective, may have a skunky taste that is not palatable for your pup. I like HempRx Forte because, at 30 mg/ml, it is well concentrated while also being the most palatable product on the market.
- Source and purity. Ensure that the product you are buying is sourced from organically grown hemp plants. Pesticide residue, especially for small dogs, should be avoided. Ensure the manufacturer can provide a certificate of analysis of each batch, proving its concentration and purity.
- THC. Ensure the product you are buying contains less than 0.3% THC. Dogs are extremely sensitive to THC and ingestion may worsen their anxiety symptoms.
- Dosing. Many pet-specific CBD products on the market have dosing recommendations that are well below therapeutic dosage. I start my patients on 0.5 mg/kg of CBD twice daily. To convert your dog’s weight from pounds to kilograms, simply divide by 2.2. After your dog’s weight has been converted to kilograms, multiply by 0.5 to get the number of milligrams. (See chart.)
|10 pound dog||4.5kg x .5mg/kg||2.25mg twice daily (Total 4.5mg)|
|20 pound dog||9kg x .5mg/kg||4.5mg twice daily (Total 9mg)|
|30 pound dog||13.6kg||6.8 twice daily (Total 13.6mg)|
|50 pound dog||22.7kg||11.35 twice daily (Total 22.7)|
|70 pound dog||31.75kg||15.9 twice daily ( Total 31.8)|
While more studies are needed, hemp extract is not known to interact with pharmaceuticals. However, increase slowly if your dog is taking drugs that increase serotonin, such as trazodone or SSRIs (Prozac or other anti-depressants). When people or animals take more than one drug or supplement that increases serotonin, a condition called serotonin syndrome may result. This has not been documented with CBD use, but is theoretically possible.
CBD generally helps improve anxiety within a day or two, but some dogs may need to take it for one to two weeks before experiencing relief.
Supplements can be an excellent resource to managing anxiety in combination with other tools. Below are several anxiety-reducing supplements that are readily available:
- L-theanine for dogs. This amino acid helps increase serotonin and can boost overall well being. It is known to be safe and effective. For some sensitive dogs, it may cause mild drowsiness at high doses.
- Magnesium glycinate for dogs. There are several forms of magnesium available online and in health food stores. This form is the best for anxiety. Start with small doses and work up to avoid loose stools.
- Chamomile for dogs. This gentle and safe herb is often found in anti-anxiety supplements for dogs and people alike, and is also commonly found in tea. Chamomile can also help settle digestive upset.
- Valerian root for dogs. This calming herb is safe for dogs and works better when combined with hops. It has a pretty potent odor, so it is usually found in capsules.
When adding supplements, be sure to add one at a time and document start dates, dose adjustments and results in your dog’s health journal. This helps you to understand the effectiveness of each, as well as observe any side effects.
Your dog’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. It’s been proven that a person’s mental health directly affects their physical health, and your pup is no different.
Reducing your dog’s stress and anxiety can have a profound impact on their quality of life and overall longevity. Advocating for their entire well-being is the best way to express the love and devotion you feel toward your pup!