Options To Help a Dog With Anxiety

by Katharine Hillestad, DVM on March 3, 2011

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One of our blog readers recently posted a tough question about a challenging dog behavior, anxiety. Dog anxiety is common enough that I decided the answer warranted a whole blog post, not just a quick answer.

Question: “My Golden retriever is 7 years old. He has skin cancer that has spread. He has major anxiety now. I home school my children and when we use a stapler he is tipping over chairs and tables to hide. We boarded him and our Newf together in a kennel that he is very familiar with, during the holidays (they said he did great). When we picked him, up he was so nervous that he vomited all over my mother in-laws house. If I leave the room, he is scrambling to find me. My question is….is he suffering like this? His level of anxiety is my concern. If he is given anxiety meds he burns right through them unless he is totally out of it!”

Answer: This is such a difficult situation, and I’m so sorry that you and your dog are going through this. It’s obviously hard on you to see him like this, and although this isn’t the same as the type of suffering experienced from pain- yes, I’m sure this is hard on him, also. Here are some things to consider; I do understand that what you can do may be limited by how much your dog is affected by his cancer at this point.

Especially for separation anxiety, the best results are usually achieved by a combination of anti-anxiety medication and behavioral modification exercises. The medication isn’t given to sedate the dog, but to help reduce his anxiety level to the point where he can relax enough to focus on something besides his anxiety. Then you can work with him to help him learn to remain relaxed in formerly anxiety-producing situations.

If your dog is not on a prescription anti-anxiety medication your veterinarian can prescribe the one best for your dog. The most effective medication varies depending on the individual dog and the things that cause the anxiety. Sometimes several different medications or doses need to be tried before we find the best one.

If your dog is already on a prescription anti-anxiety medication, talk with your veterinarian to see if they recommend a change in dose or medication.

In cases of severe anxiety, over the counter remedies usually are not effective. However, if you want to try something at home, you could try Comfort Zone with DAP, which is a room diffuser containing Dog Appeasing Pheromone, which mimics the natural pheromones nursing female dogs give off to calm and comfort their pups. Some dogs with anxiety really respond to it, others not at all.

At the same time, I would recommend you read up on separation anxiety and start beginning some behavior modification exercises. Your veterinarian may be able to help you with this. We have a basic article on separation anxiety and one on dog noise phobias. If your dog is able, increasing his daily exercise may also help to reduce his anxiety level.

I hope this helps, and we wish you and your dog all the best.

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About the author: Dr. Katharine Hillestad received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Illinois. She is a companion animal veterinarian and has a special interest in feline medicine, animal behavior and nutrition. Dr. Hillestad has been with Drs. Foster and Smith since 2001. She is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association. See more articles by Dr. Katharine Hillestad.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bonnie B March 3, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Our doctor prescribed Clomicalm for Farley. We were able to get the generic form from Drs. Foster and Smith mail order pharmacy. The generic form was so much cheaper. We are currently waiting for our shipment from DFS. We have decided to do a behavoir modification using my children’s homeschooling and “Farley” (he is the dog in the blog post). So we will be doing a Science project and helping Farley at the same time. I am hoping this will help him to be a part of our family for a much longer period of time!!

Thank You so much,
Bonnie B

Katharine Hillestad, DVM March 3, 2011 at 3:15 pm

That’s wonderful, and what a great idea! A helpful site for learning more is ABRIonline.org. It has many videos on animal behavior, which might make learning how to help Farley even more fun.

Dr. Kathy

Cynthia G. March 3, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Taking care of a dog with anxiety is challenging, but it can be overcome. I adopted a golden retriever from a couple last summer. They told me that they’d had her since she was a puppy, but another family member told me they had just adopted her a year before. Considering that she’s been re-homed twice in her 3 years, her separation anxiety is understandable. She also has a lot of fear relating to people coming to the house and any furniture being moved (both families re-homed her when they were moving). I’ve done tons of reading and have tried a number of methods to help her to be calm and focused and to build her confidence so that she knows this home is forever.

The most important thing is to not encourage the anxiety. When we make a big deal over the dog’s stress, it tells the dog that the anxiety is justified. When my Evie is starting to “wind up,” I tell her that she’s fine and everything is OK and go about my business. When I don’t focus on her fear, it shows her that everything is fine. The big thing I had to learn was how to really keep my cool. When your child is scared, you want to do anything to comfort her. With dogs, they gain more confidence when you show leadership first and affection second. It took me a while to master this because at first, when she was anxious, I was getting anxious trying to find a way to help her.

We’ve made a lot of progress since she first came home with me. Once I got her out of constant panic mode, we started doing “dry runs” of events that caused her stress (#1 being me leaving her, even to take a shower). I set up a spare bedroom as her safe space (she hated the crate I got her) and started spending quiet time in there with her. Then, we worked up to me putting a gate across the door while still in the room, then with me out of the room for a minute, working up to the point where she was comfortable without me. She is now comfortable with being left for 1.5-2 hours while I go to the gym or other short outings. We’re working up to longer periods slowly. It takes time and patience, but I’ve seen the results. She’s now so much more confident. She even went to the other end of the house for a nap last weekend while I was taking a long bath.

We still have our challenges. When she reaches full-on panic mode (which, thankfully, is rare now, usually triggered by a stranger coming to the house), I practice compression restraint. This keeps her from hurting me, herself, or my cats and helps her to calm down. Basically, I get on top of her, wrapping my arms around her and put enough pressure on her to keep her in place without putting my body weight on her. It’s similar to what the Thunder Coat does or the compression restraint tools used with kids with autism. I’m giving her a big hug and keep repeating in a calm voice that “Evie’s OK” until she is calmer. Then, we spend a little longer in that spot with me close by but not restraining her. I practice herbal medicine, so I’ve been treating her with herbs baked into dog cookies, as well, which has helped immensely.

It’s a long road, but you can help your dog become calm, cool, and collected.

Jason March 10, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I’m not sure if my dog is “officially” anxious… but he is jumpy. It’s both annoying – since he sometimes scoots and scatters on the hardwood at the slightest movement you make – and heart breaking, because we want him to relax. That said, most of the time he seems like a happy dog, so that’s good.

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