Dogs, cats, and other pets can get anxious, and it’s usually not the owner’s fault

When Tian Chee Lu adopted rescue dogs Max and Chopper during one of Melbourne’s long COVID-19 lockdowns, the positive impact on mental health was instant.

“You come home after a bad day and they comfort you. All they want is cuddles and love,” said Ms. Lu.

But within weeks of the adoption, she noticed that Chopper wasn’t coping.

“I was really anxious around other dogs,” she said.

“The moment Chopper saw any other dog… he would go right at them and then react, bark at them and run.”

A small elderly dog ​​wears a red vest and sits on a chair.
Chopper the dog has been in treatment for anxiety for six months. (ABC News: Matt Holmes)

Ms. Lu took Chopper to see veterinary psychiatrist Jacqui Ley, who diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder.

As in humans, anxiety is a natural emotion. But about one in five dogs has an anxiety problem, Dr. Ley said.

A smiling woman in glasses and a pink t-shirt sits in a veterinary office
Dr. Jacqui Ley is an animal mental health specialist and treats anxiety disorders in all types of pets.(ABC News: Matt Holmes)

Anxiety is common but it doesn’t always look the same

Some symptoms of anxiety in dogs are similar to human anxiety, for example elevated heart rate and blood pressure.

There are also behavioral signs, which vary but often include hypervigilance, restlessness, pacing, aggression, trembling, panting, excessive grooming, and barking or howling.

“For animals with anxiety disorders, they will display these behaviors in situations that are not necessarily anxiety-provoking,” said Dr. Ley.

But a dog showing symptoms of anxiety doesn’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder.

“We see a lot of anxious behavior in dogs experiencing pain, especially low-grade chronic pain,” said Dr. Ley.

She said it was important for concerned dog owners to see their vet to rule out other health issues.

A husky cross german shepherd dog lying down
Just like in humans, traumatic experiences can contribute to a dog’s anxiety. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)

Do anxious humans lead to anxious dogs?

Research Suggests Dogs can detect chronic anxiety and stress in humans. and experience correspondingly elevated stress hormones.

But Dr. Ley said that doesn’t mean owners are passing their own problems onto their dogs.

“If you have two anxious people together, they’ll tend to annoy each other… but you can’t make a neurotypical animal anxious without trying incredibly hard.”

A smiling woman in a black dress sits with a white dog on her lap
Ms. Lu adopted Max (pictured) and Chopper during the COVID-19 pandemic. (ABC News: Matt Holmes)

While the causes of anxiety in dogs are not yet fully understood, genetic and environmental factors, as well as trauma, may contribute.

Environmental factors can include a lack of routine, punishment-based training methods, excessive noise and interruptions, as well as anything else that prevents a dog from meeting its basic needs.

“That can be really confusing for them and can be anxiety-provoking,” said Dr. Ley.

However, lack of training is not a cause of dog anxiety.

“A lot of people are told that you haven’t trained your dog well, that you’ve let your dog sleep in the bed, on the couch…but none of that plays a role,” said Dr. Ley.

“If the dog has a problem, the dog has a problem. Just like if the dog has diabetes, the dog has a pancreas that is not working properly.

A hand cuts dog food on a cutting board next to a packet of antidepressant medication.
Antidepressants are one of the most common medications for pet anxiety. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Pet anxiety is often treated the same way as human anxiety

But it’s not just about dogs. Cats and other pets, including birds, lizards, turtles, rabbits, and snakes, can also have anxiety disorders.

But anxiety looks different from species to species.

“There are a number of animals whose anxiety disorder goes undetected because they don’t actually show it to people,” Dr. Leys said.

Cats are an example. Already secretive by nature, cat anxiety often manifests itself in hidden behaviors or urine spraying or marking around the house.

Many cats also take antidepressant medications for anxiety. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)

However, anxiety treatment is similar for most pets.

“They should be diagnosed and treated like any other health problem,” said Dr. Ley.

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