Anxiety in Dogs: Terms & Concepts

If your dog seems constantly stressed out by loud noises, enclosed spaces, or even just by being in a separate room from you and your family, you’re not alone. Anxiety is one of the most common disorders affecting dogs around the world, with nearly fifty percent of dogs having some form of anxiety.

Unfortunately, there may not be a “one size fits all” solution to your dog’s anxiety. Instead, experts suggest that you should focus on two main approaches: first, identifying the specific issues with your dog, and second, managing their more severe symptoms and improving their ability to function.

Important Terms and Concepts

The most important part of understanding your dog’s condition is understanding the terms that are used to discuss it. Anxiety is different from fear, and both are different from a phobia, so understanding which your dog suffers from can go a long way towards getting them the treatment they need.

Fear is a natural response to a threat. Fear keeps both dogs and humans safe, and is a perfectly normal and healthy reaction to have.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is an anticipation of a threat that prompts a physiological response, even when the threat is not imminent or even nonexistent.

A phobia is a persistent fear that exists in a level disproportionate to that of the threat.

Common signs of fear in dogs include:

  • lowered tail
  • flattened ears
  • pacing or panting
  • urination or defecation
  • stiff muscles
  • hiding/avoidance
Different categories of anxiety signs in dogs

Unfortunately, these are mostly the same symptoms that manifest for anxiety disorders, so the next important step in diagnosing your dog is separating the stimuli from the response. In other words, what makes your dog act afraid?

Comorbidity and Misdiagnoses: Are you confusing the signs?

Comorbidity basically refers to a situation in which the patient (your dog) may have multiple conditions at the same time and can often be a factor in misdiagnosis. In other words, if your dog suffers from one or more types of anxiety, it may be difficult to find the cause and be misdiagnosed as a result.

The three main sources of anxiety in dogs are noise anxiety, separation anxiety, and confinement anxiety. If you want to help your dog, your first step should be figuring out which of these conditions apply before you start looking for a solution.

The best way to get a clear and accurate diagnosis for your dog is to watch their behavior. Fortunately, all three forms of anxiety are relatively easy to track.

If you notice your dog displaying signs of distress or anxiety in response to loud noises, regardless of where they are in the house or where you are in your house, the most likely diagnosis is noise anxiety. Common triggers for this form of anxiety include thunderstorms, fireworks, or loud crashing noises.

If your dog is acting anxious whenever they are confined to a small area, regardless of whether you are at home or out of the house, your most likely diagnosis is confinement anxiety. Take note of how your dog acts before, after, and during confinement, and be ready to answer any questions that your vet may have on the matter.

If your dog only starts acting anxious when it’s time for you to go to work or just leave your home, then they may suffer from separation anxiety. You may want to consider the way your dog acts when you return to your home, as well as how they behave when they suspect that you might be getting ready to leave.

Again, it’s extremely possible that your dog may suffer from one or more types of anxiety, so the answer may not always be as clear-cut as presented above. If your dog suffers from multiple sources of anxiety, their signs will get worse when the different sources are combined.

For example, your dog may act anxious when you’re getting ready to leave and may become even more anxious when they’re confined before you leave. Keep track of your dog’s anxiety attacks and try to take note of when and how they present themselves.

Video recordings can be an incredibly helpful diagnostic tool. If you suspect that your dog suffers from separation or confinement anxiety, try setting up a camera at home to watch your dog’s behavior when you’re not around.

Videos can also be helpful when talking to a veterinarian. Having a video on hand to show the way your dog behaves can go a long way towards making sure that your local veterinarian has the tools they need to help you and your dog.