If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack yourself, you know that the effects can be debilitating and scary at the moment—and can even be traumatizing long term. This severe anxiety episode can present itself as cardiac arrest in humans—and do our pets feel that sense of panic the same way that we do?
Erin Askeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, and Camp Bow Wow’s animal health and behavior expert says they can. “Dogs can experience panic attacks like the way humans do,” she explains. “This means they may experience a sudden feeling of intense fear and anxiety that could cause physical responses.”
Additionally, Dr. Linda Simon, a veterinary surgeon and a veterinary consultant for FiveBarks agrees saying, “As vets, we are learning more about canine anxiety in recent years, “Many of our dogs experience anxiety, though how severely this affects their day-to-day life varies tremendously.”
What Causes Dogs To Panic?
Several things can cause a dog to panic. Panic attacks in pets can happen suddenly and without an apparent cause or reason, but the most common cause is likely chronic stress, according to Askeland. But this is different from anxiety as anxiety has triggers that intensify it.
“For example, a dog who doesn’t like car rides may start to become anxious when the garage door opens, and car keys are picked up because those are cues that a car ride is about to take place,” she says.
Most dogs deal with their anxiety well and only experience it in short bursts during stressful events, such as a trip to the vet or an encounter with an aggressive dog. “This sort of anxiety is normal and is linked to the ‘fight or flight’ response and dogs soon calm down once the stressor is removed,” Dr. Simon says.
But some dogs have ongoing anxiety and can become stressed by things that wouldn’t faze others. “Day-to-day things like the sound of traffic or their owner leaving them to go to work may prove too much for these dogs to handle,” she says. “It is these anxious individuals who are prone to episodes of severe anxiety or ‘anxiety attacks.'”
What are the triggers and signs to look out for?
A panic attack in dogs can present itself in various ways. If you suspect your dog is experiencing a panic attack, you may notice:
Increased heart rate
Ears back, lowered head and tail pulled down between the legs
All of these signs can be triggered by different things, but thunderstorms and fireworks are two very common causes.
How Can You Help a Dog Having a Panic Attack?
First, try to stay calm. Your energy can impact how your dog feels too. “Help your dog by remaining calm and present,” Dr. Simon says. She also recommends using stress relief items like anxiety vests, calming supplements, and pheromone plug-ins like Adaptil.
Askeland also suggests practicing basic cues that the dog knows well, playing with a favorite toy, or moving them to a new location, such as a room in the house, the yard, or even going on a walk. Dogs who are not able to be calmed may need a quiet place to recover with calming music (such as classical or jazz) or have major stimuli removed (such as noises, bright light, many people, other animals, or lots of activity).
If It’s Not a Panic Attack, Then What Is It?
The panicked reaction could also be fear with a specific trigger, a phobia, anxiety, or stress. If you can rule out a panic attack, but your dog is still exhibiting worrisome behaviors, it may be a sign of physical pain or illness—like seizures and epileptic conditions. So, definitely consult your vet if you can’t connect the behavior to any obvious stressor like a storm or new people coming into the home.
Furthermore, if your dog is acting strangely but you do not feel it is anxiety-related, they may have ingested a toxin. Dr. Simor explains that substances such as nicotine, which is found in cigarettes, caffeine, and theobromine, which is found in chocolates, can all act as stimulants that can cause symptoms similar to a panic attack.
Ultimately, Dr. Simon suggests that you try to set your dog up for success. “For example, if fireworks are going off that night, build your dog a safe ‘den’ inside the home,” she says. “This is a place away from windows where your dog can bury under blankets. Keep curtains closed and have the TV or radio on high to drown out the noise. Some dogs will need prescription calming medicine from the vet.”
It helps to try and avoid the situations you learn will trigger them and to desensitize them if possible. Stay calm and remember to do what you can in order for your pet to feel secure.