Every single day in 2020 has been a roller coaster from one day to the next. From the current stages of re-opening in Canada to the continuing riots just south of our national border, the globe is continuously changing on a day-to-day basis. The same can be said for our pets, especially all of the extra walks most dogs are experiencing with owners staying home. Not that more exercise is a bad thing, but if Fido is running downstairs at 6PM to hide from you and the leash… maybe it’s time to calm down with the walks.
The current pandemic is also a period to spend extra time taking care of your psychiatric wellness. Unfortunately, many people are experiencing bouts of anxiety or depression symptoms more frequently due to COVID-19, and just as we ride along with this virus, so do our dogs. I mentioned previously that my family cat, Charlie, had positive results from an anti-anxiety ear paste that was recommended to us by a vet. The symptoms of depression and other psychiatric conditions may go far beyond a topical medication, however, and dogs experience the ups and downs of some psychiatric states like humans do.
Dogs have been a subject of study for many decades in the science world, and are commonly used in studies as model animals. Russian psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov worked extensively on different systems within the canine body during his career. His two major research studies on digestion and conditioning are still referred to in theoretical literature in modern times. Pavlov also provided a basis of the canine mind, and how to interpret dog language correctly.
Currently, several studies have lead to a major gene discovery in canines. In 2017, two canine genes found in domestic dogs were synonymous with genetic mutations associated with William’s syndrome in humans. Over-friendliness is a defining characteristic in William’s syndrome in people, and the genetic findings hint at our dog’s friendly nature is linked to domestication through actual genetic evolution. Their outgoing character is also what induces comparable anxiety symptoms to humans.
Unfortunately, while our canine companions are wired to bond with humans exceptionally well, they still aren’t able to communicate with us with any human language. When it comes to communication, dog owners have to rely on other non-verbal forms when our dogs start getting anxious.
Anxiety starts off in small, barely noticeable ways, like separation anxiety. Your dog may start to pant as you prepare to head for work, and by the time you’ve walked out the door, their anxiety has escalated. We must distinguish anxiety from fear, however. “Anxiety can escalate to panic, and coping mechanisms may fail when the apparent jeopardy of a context is inflated, as affected animals overreact to ambiguous or unpredictable situations” (Schwartz, 2003). In the case of separation anxiety, a dog will begin to worry over people leaving them rather than the actual instance of abandonment taking place to induce fear and act in a manner that gets them out of that situation.
Dogs aren’t able to communicate with human language, so owners may miss the less noticeable symptoms of anxiety before they evolve into behaviours that are much more noticeable. Increased panting and lip licking are just a few subtle ways dogs express anxiety. Some other anxious symptoms and behaviours may include:
Trembling, hiding in closets or under furniture, chewing or scratching doors to escape, pacing, barking, whining, and defecating or urinating in the house“Decoding the Canine Mind” Berns, G. (2020)
Some of these behaviours, like barking, are often interpreted as aggression. You think that the mailman inserting letters through your door isn’t intrusive, but the sound of someone making noise by the main door is interpreted fearfully by anxious dogs. When attempting to observe possible sources for these characteristics, view it from your dog’s perspective and with an open mind.
My previous article touched on the benefits of using medication as part of personal treatment for mental illness. The same remedies, selective-serotonin inhibitors, help stabilize your dog’s mood, so they don’t experience depression or bouts of extreme anxiety.
“Interestingly, dogs with behavioral problems often improve when they are treated with human medications for depression and anxiety. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, like fluoxetine (Prozac), are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs in veterinary behavioral medicine. Others include benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants, beta-blockers, and even lithium. Indeed, the psychopharmacopeia for dogs is nearly the same as for humans.”“Decoding the Canine Mind” Berns, G. (2020)
To disrupt anxious behaviour, anti-anxiety medications provide a calmer mind for training and tools during periods of high stress. It’s much easier to focus on techniques designed to reduce anxiety levels when they aren’t out of control in the first place. If your dog experiences severe anxiety during thunderstorms, for example, you may want to consider lowering their overall anxiety through medication before attempting to imply calming techniques as the dog will be more receptive. Working with an experienced trainer will also set you up on the right path to deescalating anxiety for your dog in the future.
As science, governments, and businesses frequently adapt to the current COVID-19 pandemic, our home lives have also faced the same routine changes. For many, those changes lead to permanent alterations that our pets are also experiencing (including more walks). It’s important to notice the small signs that our dogs are experiencing some anxiety to prevent further unwanted behaviours, like marking or severe separation anxiety. You may even notice some of the common symptoms are happening to you too!
If you do believe an anxiety disorder is interfering with your dog, medication is a proven treatment to help set a better baseline for your dog when it comes to fearful situations. Anxiety is a normal experience that can be managed and diminished by taking the time to observe you and your pup’s well being. Stay safe out there!
Berns, G. (2020). Decoding the Canine Mind. Cerebrum: the Dana Forum on Brain Science, cer-04-20.
Schwartz, S. (2003). Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Asso, 222:1526-1532. Retrieved from https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/resources/javma_222_11_1526.pdf