Terrified little dog lying on the floor below bed.

Anxiety in Pets: Recognizing Signs and Preventing Fear from Developing

Reading Time: 16 MIN

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a behavioral, physiological, and psychological state, brought on by a perceived or actual threat to safety or survival. Anxiety is intrinsically linked to fear and pain. While fear and pain occupy the present moment, anxiety spans over longer periods of time.

How Do I Know if My Pet is Anxious?

Unlike acute pain and fear, you’re going to see anxiety span across greater lengths of time. You may also see other seemingly unrelated problem behaviors show up before and after you think the anxiety-inducing event ends.

This is because anxiety is future oriented. Animals learn to predict potential threats and can take more time to return to a relaxed state, after the threat is over.

Depending on the type of trigger and your lifestyle, anxiety can also persist at a low-level, becoming like a low hum that we don’t notice in our animals. It just becomes a “part of their personality.” We may only notice or act when acute behaviors or behaviors that impact our lifestyles become problematic enough that we can’t ignore them anymore.

Dog mischief. Two dogs with innocent expression after destroy a pillow. separation anxiety and obedience training concept. High angle view.

What Does Anxiety and Fear Look Like in Cats and Dogs?

Anxiety can present itself as either an obvious expression, less obvious expression, or almost invisible in cats and dogs.

Obvious behaviors can sometimes cause an animal to be mislabeled “aggressive” or “weird” as though it’s a personality flaw. Some obvious expressions include barking or lunging, hissing, spitting, swatting in cats, growling, baring teeth, hackles up, hiding, panting, drooling, pacing, destructiveness, hot spots or compulsive behaviors.

Less obvious behaviors are also often mislabeled which can lead to worsening anxiety. Some examples of less obvious anxiety expressions include head tucked, ears pinned, whiskers panned out and forward, whale eyes, puckered mouth, rounding of back, tails tucked, restlessness, and ravenously consuming food.

Almost invisible behaviors can lead to mislabeling, which can lead to quiet suffering and is a missed opportunity to meet our pets’ needs. Some of these behaviors include refusing food, whimpers, freezing, hypervigilance, changes in sleep patterns, clinginess, or depression.

What Causes Anxiety to Develop?

  • Anxiety can develop from one-time experiences, prolonged exposure, or repeated experiences with something suspicious or something that induces discomfort, pain or fear.
  • No two animals are the same. Two from the same family may be impacted differently.
  • Genetics has its function, particularly with breed groups.
  •   Some breeds are more likely to develop certain sensitivities and fears.

Common contributing factors include:

  • Inadequate socialization
  • Lack of choice (being forced into a space or being unable to escape)
  • Being pushed over-threshold

What are the most common fears?

Russian toy terrier dog with care and suspicion looks at the camera, on a blurred background of greenery.
  1. Strangers
  2. Sensory stimulating environments
  3. Startles
  4. Sounds
  5. Scents
  6. Separation
  7. Symptoms
  8. Single-event learning

Prevention

With so many common fears, it’s important to focus on prevention to stop anxiety from developing. A better word for prevention is optimization. While it’s not possible to prevent life from having its impact on us or our animals, it is possible to optimize our animals for successful acclimation to potentially scary things, and thereby minimize their potential for developing anxiety related behavior challenges.

Optimizing your dog or cat for success looks different depending on their age (and other factors). For our purposes, we’ll look at the different age groups.

Babies (puppies/kittens) and adolescents benefit from socialization and management. The goal is to prevent them from being pushed into that fight or flight response, while getting them comfortable with a changing environment.

With adults, the goal remains the same. We accomplish this with:

  • Intentional set ups around triggers; not just flying by the seat of your pants
  • Go at your animal’s pace
  • Prioritize choice; let them opt out
  • Create escape routes and give breaks
  • Have an alternative plan to potentially scary activities
  • It should go without saying: meet your animal’s needs every day. Offer species-appropriate outlets for natural behaviors daily!
    • Dogs: Chewing, digging, shredding, sniffing, foraging, playing, sleep

Aging dogs and cats should get more frequent medical checkups. You should pay attention to changes in activity, energy, appetite, weight, self-grooming, and body part sensitivity. Be sure to get those things checked out. Adjust activity regimens as they age, so that it’s age appropriate.

Cat Caveats

tiger cat hiding under sofa

It’s important to remember that cats are predators, but they are also a prey species. They live with predators, and that is stressful! It’s natural for them to hide illness. As a cat parent, you must recognize that you’ll have to go the extra mile to meet your cat’s needs.

Keeping Your Pets Safe

Different cultures have different words for pet owners. This isn’t new to me, as I come from a different culture than the one, I currently live in. You’ll notice I referred to you as pet parents, and I did so, because in the English language, it’s the easiest way to communicate with you in a way that you’ll understand.

I recently learned the word Kahu, which comes from Hawaiian tradition. It is the word for dog parent or owner, and its other meanings also include guardian, honored attendant, keeper or protector. I share this with you today, because I want you to know that you are that person. You have been entrusted with the safekeeping of this precious little life or maybe many lives.

Q and A in word bubblesUnanswered Questions from the Class

In our home, we listen to 528 HZ healing (and anxiety) music. I play Pets Anxiety HZ music for Harvey when I leave the house. Dana, have you experienced using the property HZ music for animals? Preparing to open an animal sanctuary for all animals and would like your contact info.

I do not have experience with that particular music, but I do have experience using sound buffers and masks to help reduce and alleviate a dog’s stress over time. When it comes to music, there is no one size fits all, but there is evidence around certain frequencies for calming properties. But even within that evidence there are outliers. All that to say that it’s important to tailor any music/sound aids specifically to the goals you’re trying to accomplish. And in the case of a sanctuary type setting where there would likely be many animals (as compared to a home setting), prioritizing sound absorption can be very helpful in the planning stages of what you’re setting up. I’m happy to chat further and can be scheduled me via my website www.thebravedogcollective.com.

Is there a preferred way to leave your home to not further trigger an anxious response by your pet?

For any dog, I always recommend having calm departure and arrival routines. Folks are usually either very organized and low-key about it, or they are more like hurried tornados 🙂 Since we are trying to elicit calm (and maybe even disinterest) from our dogs when we leave, us being calm helps prevent piquing their interest or triggering fears. Thus, if possible, get in the habit of quietly, calmly, but naturally collecting your things and exiting without making it a big dramatic goodbye to your dog. Bonus if you’re organized enough to keep your things in one place or prep them well in advance of departures. All these things can help prevent your dog’s arousal from spiking, but if your dog is already sensitive to certain pre-departure cues or routines, then you need to incorporate desensitization techniques.

My 1.5 yo golden doodle has separation anxiety even if physical access is cut off (ie I go into the driveway and he can see me through the gate). I am not able to leave him alone without him crying and scratching to get to me. How can I begin to manage this anxiety and help him gain independence?

I’m so sorry you and your dog are in this position! The good news is that relief is 100% possible. Check out my HFU webinar about separation anxiety, as it outlines how to get started and the best resources to help you. I always recommend getting a trainer on board as soon as possible, but specifically one who specializes in these cases. You are welcome to reach out to me, or you’d otherwise be in good hands with any Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. Good luck!

I can’t always have my dog outside with me as I can’t watch him to prevent him from getting into trouble. However, if left in the house he cries and salivates all over the windows or doors wanting to get out. the drool is so bad that his feet are wet. I try to put him in a room where he can’t see me but, he still does the crying and drooling. What can I do to reduce his anxiety?

It sounds like you’re dealing with some amount of separation anxiety or distress. I’m so sorry! There is no way around it, you absolutely need to get a good absence management plan in place. That means finding alternatives to leaving your dog alone and continuing to both rehearse the problem behaviors and cause them to panic when you leave them. I’ve worked with clients in the distant past who tried to continue leaving their dog alone but also train alongside that, and it’s a very slow, unreliable process that does not yield the results you want – which is to be able to leave them alone and have them remain calm. Know that absence management is not forever, but it is essential when starting out. Find other people who can watch your dog either in your or their home, try daycare/sitters/boarding, and have a conversation with your dog’s medical team, too. We have a webinar that discusses training options in more depth; be sure to check that out.

My dog must interact with two large friendly dogs. However, he initiates aggression with them which causes stress in me and them. What can I do to work with him on being chill with other dogs?

Why does your dog “have to” interact with these dogs? Getting clear about whether this really is a must is important. Because continuing to put them in situations where aggression occurs is sacrificing their welfare. You’ll have the best prognosis in resolving aggression if you can implement management strategies immediately (i.e., situation avoidance) to give your dog (and the others) relief from this recurring stressor. Without sound management, it’s otherwise very challenging to make true progress or reach a real resolution to aggression. Suppression of aggression is possible in some cases but its not humane and it’s not without risk of worsening behaviors in the long run. With management in place (think physical separation and limiting visual or auditory access/exposure to the other dogs), you might prioritize muzzle training, as this can be a necessary safety/management tool for future training that focuses on getting your dog to enjoy being around the dogs. A qualified behavior consultant can help you come up with viable management strategies that suit your current situation and help you prioritize training activities.

I have a rescue shih tzu and he follows me everywhere including the bathroom. He can’t be left behind due to anxiety. He hates phone ringtones. Any advice for me?

Check out my previous webinar on Dog Separation Anxiety and look for the section on independence training. Those suggestions can help your dog learn to be around you without always being in such proximity. Set up a comfortable safe space for them and give them an independent activity to work on (chewing, snuffling, etc). Sit 3′ or so away. On the next successions, sit further away; and over time, set yourself up in another room, etc. If you feel stuck otherwise, get a qualified trainer on board!

Due to work from home changes, I am beginning to put my dog into doggy day care. What strategies can I utilize to help ease them into being comfortable in day care?

Make sure you research and tour behind the scenes at any facility first. Some questions to ask include what’s the schedule, how many dogs in a group, how dogs are paired, if they are given breaks, where they are given breaks and how long, human to dog ratio (supervision), how they handle unruly or dangerous behavior in dogs… Once you’ve narrowed down your options, start with an assessment/evaluation day, and if possible, make it a partial or half day, instead of a full one. Ask specific questions about how your dog did: what they did all day, what friends did they make, what kind of play did they engage in (wrestling, chasing, lounging, etc.), did they make human friends, how did they behave on their breaks, etc. Ideally, gradually work up to longer stays at daycare (if that’s what you need) but try to not overuse this resource either. Most adult dogs who “do well” at daycare would benefit from no more than 2 full days per week, and it’s common for older dogs to enjoy the experience less as they age or if the environment (group dynamics, etc.) change.

Any advice to stop paw licking? We’ve tried meds, food elimination diet, wipes, foot soak, inflatable collar, etc. Seems like a habit and maybe anxiety but not sure.

Make sure you’re getting a medical professional (or maybe two) opinion on this! Start there, as allergies and itchiness can be both challenging to diagnose and treat. But it’s important that we’re doing what we can to address any physical component to the behavior. It may be worth getting a behavior consultant on board, particularly one that has had experience with itchy or anxious behaviors. It will be helpful to be able to share with them what context the licking happens, how long, how frequent, and more about your household (other animals, people, and activities).

Is it safe to use a bark collar when I’m not home?

No, it is not.

When I take my dog on a walk, every time we see other dogs he goes nuts and barks uncontrollably. I’ve tried high value treats, but it doesn’t work. My family wants to avoid walking him because it’s so stressful! Any suggestions?

Leash reactivity makes leash walking difficult! The good news is that contrary to what you might have been told, walks are NOT everything! Particularly, if your dog is struggling in this way. Find a management strategy that replaces walks as an energy outlet until you’re able to bring the behavior into a more manageable range. That can look like indoor enrichment, taking sniffy walks in a calmer environment, off leash play in enclosed areas, etc. This allows you to focus on training walks to help curb reactivity. It sounds like you’re already trying to use counterconditioning (engage/disengage or “look at that”); so, revisit that, but with some tweaks. You’ll need to try higher value food than what you’ve already tried and get creative – novel canned proteins mashed into a squeeze tube can be very helpful here. You’ll also have to start from a greater distance from other dogs. And if you’re still struggling, find a trainer who has experience with these kinds of cases to help you tailor your plan more specifically to your dog.

We have a new 5 month old puppy who we are crate training. She enters on her own, we reward. She eats and drinks in her crate. We move the crate in and around the home. We have a consistent routine. She sleeps in her crate all night without any accidents (sleeps in crate, next to our bed). We work outside of the home and leave her crated for 3-4 hours. We go home to let her out and move around and then crate her again for another 3-4 hours, until we get home. She is unable to hold her bladder during the day. We have removed her bedding, but she still won’t hold it and has accidents. Are we expecting too much for her to hold it during the day?

It sounds like you might be expecting more than she can do, yes. Try breaking up the two absences into shorter ones and see if you catch her before she has an accident. You might also try setting up in-home surveillance to watch your dog when alone. It could be that she’s struggling with some amount of anxiety related to be left or confined when alone, or she might be struggling with sound sensitivity. Home surveillance can help you determine if there are specific triggers leading up to the accidents, and just generally when they happen.

Can you use the same verbal cue – e.g., Potato – for various actions, or do you need to use a different cue for each behavior I use “pickles” to tell her to begin moving after we have waited to cross a street – do I need a different word to positively interrupt barking when I come home?

Each cue = one behavior. One cue cannot mean different things. So, yes, since “pickles” is already in use with your dog, pick a different cue. It can also help to try to make cues sound/look distinct from other cues. For ex, potato and tomato might be difficult to differentiate for some dogs. I love creative cues, so definitely continue that trend.

I have a 2 yr. old miniature Aussie. She doesn’t have separation anxiety but she is very cautious when meeting new people and animals. She is protective over her people and home – barking at anyone walking by our house or being jealous when my husband talks to another person or pets another dog. She is very scared of loud noises (thunder, rain, fireworks) and goes into hiding whether we are home or not. What can we do to help her adjust to new situations and overcome her fears

It sounds like your dog has a lot of everyday triggers affecting her on a regular basis. Start with management strategies around all her triggers. Remember that management is situation avoidance; it’s not forever, but it’s essential in the beginning to give your dog necessary relief. If the triggers to people walking by your house are visual, then install some visual barriers. If they are auditory, use sound buffers. Get a trainer on board and consult your vet!

With my foxhound, I should’ve specified storms as related to suddenly taking two steps back. It only takes 1 boom, and so hard to watch her fear.

Yes, that can happen. Single events can be traumatic enough that your dog experiences a sudden regression. Go back to management strategies, to help buffer her exposure to these triggers.

We have our FIRST Rescue Dog. She’s two, we’ve had her 7 months. We’ve been told she needs to go away to training for 10 days. Is this a good idea She already has separation anxiety. Thank you.

If the training goal is to resolve separation anxiety, then absolutely NOT. It’s NEVER appropriate to send a dog away to try to resolve separation anxiety. Those programs center on suppression of behavior, which I explained is not the same as resolution, and unfortunately, carries the risk of behavioral and physical fallout. The best approach to resolving sepanx is working with a specialist who bases training on desensitization. This requires that the training start in your home (and over time you can generalize that). Look for a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer and check out my Dog Separation Anxiety Webinar in the HFU library.

Where do we go to find a quality trainer?

The good news is there are plenty of options! The bad news is that there are so many options! Start local and look for someone who will work with you, answer all your questions, and can provide references for experience helping other clients reach similar goals. You can rewatch the last few minutes of this webinar for more tips!

My jack russell terrier’s anxiety is triggered by the “ding” from a cell phone text. I can’t control buffer that in external situations.

Sometimes the sounds are just irritating! Have you tried a different ringer?

I would like to listen once again to your crate training ideas. How can I go back and see this again?

The webinar is now posted in the HFU library!

Our dog will come up to a stranger and allow them to pet him. Then, after some period of time, usually a couple of minutes, he’ll suddenly start barking at the person who is petting.

What’s very likely happening is that your dog is showing some of the “less than obvious” fear/anxiety body language signals I discussed in the webinar. Go back and watch that section and see what signals you may have been overlooking in the past. It’s important that you become an expert in your dog’s body language so that you can listen to her before she reaches the point of barking to ask for space. Know that affiliative (i.e. engaging and social behaviors) can look identical to appeasement and fear-based cut off behaviors. It’s possible that’s where some of the confusion is. If you’re still stumped after considering those not so obvious signals, then hire a qualified trainer who has a good history of helping dogs gain confidence around unfamiliar people to help you work through this.

Our pup (he is a year old) sleeps in his crate at night, no problem. But absolutely panics and tries to destroy it, his bedding, toys, etc. if we put him in his crate and try to leave. His crate is large enough and he likes it at night and when he wants to nap. How do we overcome this We cannot leave him home alone. We take him with us or one of us stays home with him. Help.

Does your dog have to be crated when left alone? Confinement anxiety is incredibly common, even among dogs who do not struggle with separation anxiety. I also have never met a dog with separation anxiety who did better when crated or confined. If you are not married to the crate, and open to teaching your dog how to be left alone calmly without confinement, then you may be saving yourself a lot of extra work by starting with unconfined calm absences. Check out my Dog Separation Anxiety webinar for tips to get started and other resources. It’s always a good idea to get a specialist involved sooner rather than later, so look into working with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer or reach out to me. Good luck!

Our heeler mix alerts to and starts barking as soon as he hears an Amazon or UPS delivery van in the neighborhood. He starts barking then, and if the driver stops at our house and drops a package on our porch, he barks like crazy. How do we stop this when he goes on high alert as soon as he hears a delivery vehicle on the street, even if it doesn’t stop at our house?

This is a great example of how dogs learn to predict the future, and how cues that predict scary things become more and more salient (obvious) over time. It’s an incredibly intelligent survival tactic, but in the case of your dog it’s not a voluntary choice. Go back to the section on sound buffers for details on how to install and use white noise sound buffers. This is the first step in reducing the intensity of the experience every time those triggering sounds occur. Start teaching a positive interrupter and mat work separately, and then work on chaining them together. You may also benefit from specific counter conditioning work with the triggering sounds, which a qualified behavior consultant can help you with. Know that this won’t change overnight, but if you are using the right methods, you can see a lot of progress after a few months or more. In the long run, this’ll pay off over your pup’s lifetime.

My dog has always enjoyed riding in the car. We have traveled many times and to different states. Our other dog passed away last year and since then my current dog gets anxious in the car; BUT only when she figures out we aren’t staying local. It’s been over a year since the loss, but her anxiety continues to get worse. She shakes, pants, screams and hides. She is currently taking calming supplements and wearing a ThunderShirt. My vet has been involved in all decisions. (Adopting another pup isn’t an option right now). Any tips?

I’m so sorry about your pup’s passing. I worked with a dog in a similar situation a couple of years ago, where there was sudden behavior change related to car rides and other scenarios after the death of a companion dog. Ensure your dog has had a recent (as in, since the behavior change you noted and/or within the last couple of months) medical checkup, as it’s possible that there’s been a physical change that needs addressing. In the case of this dog, I’ve referenced (and many others I’ve worked with), it took 3 different checkups over a few months to finally reveal that there had been an underlying health problem. It may be worth getting a second opinion outside of the current medical team. As your trainer, I would want to know more specifically what you’ve tried and when and what the results were before advising further. Thus, I recommend you get a qualified behavior consultant involved. In the meantime, do what you can to limit the car rides, and create as comfortable and supportive of an environment in the car for now, i.e.. include comfort items, sounds, etc., limit access to distressing visual stimuli/sounds/etc., and make sure your dog’s physical/mental/emotional needs are otherwise being met before/during/after any unavoidable long trips.

My dog has very similar issues to the 2-year-old Aussie in a previous question. She tends to be very overprotective of peopledogs she thinks are hers. What can I do to keep her from lashing out in situations where she feels like “her people animals” are threatened?

It’s great you can identify the specific situations that lead to the behavior you’re hoping to change. I’d have more questions about how long this has been going on, how frequently it currently occurs, specifically what behaviors your dog is exhibiting (barking? lunging? biting? hiding?), and more about her diet/physical health. It’s worth connecting with a qualified behavior consultant that either has experience with the breed and/or territorial behaviors. In the meantime, situation avoidance is your friend! You don’t want your dog continuing to rehearse the problematic behaviors and it’s also beneficial for her to have relief from triggers. It may be worth getting started on muzzle training, so that this can be comfortably incorporated into any behavior modification plan.

Is it too late to train a dog who is 3-years old to not be so prone to separation anxiety when you leave?

Not at all! I’ve worked with puppies as young as 8 weeks and dogs as old as 12 years. Of course, the sooner you start, the better. So, don’t delay! Connect with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, and in the meantime, you can check out my Dog Separation Anxiety webinar in the HFU library for an idea of what training will look like.

 

 

 

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