While many owners are fascinated by fabulous firework shows and lightening-filled thunderstorms, our four-legged companions all too often cower under beds or in corners, whining, crying, and shaking uncontrollably. According to one recently published study on canine anxiety, repeated exposure to anxiety-inducing stimuli negatively affects the physical, mental, and even social health of dogs, thereby reducing quality of life.
“Despite the high prevalence of this welfare concern, less than one-third of these owners currently seek professional advice,” said the authors.
Veterinarians are an excellent resource for advice about relieving canine anxiety. The first step, however, is for owners to accurately recognize even subtle signs of anxiety. Only then can they adequately address fear-related disorders in their pet, by using pharmaceutical, complementary, and alternative therapies, or a combination thereof. Remember that some degree of anxiety is normal for dogs.
Causes of Canine Anxiety
An overwhelming 50 percent of dogs reportedly suffer from some form of noise sensitivity. Fireworks reportedly top the list of noises dogs fear, followed closely by thunder and gunshots. However, it isn’t always spectacular events such as thunderstorms and fireworks that trigger anxiety. Changes in the household, such as the loss of a family member or pet, addition of a new baby or pet; traveling; separation from an owner for even a few minutes or hours; crate anxiety; trips to the veterinarian, groomer, or boarding facility can induce disquiet and angst.
The Vast and Varied Signs of Anxiety
Anyone who’s spent time with an anxious or fearful dog knows it’s no walk in the park. Watching a loved one panting, pacing, whining, crying, excessively barking, and even defecating or urinating, and being unable to calm him is distressful for all. Not all episodes of anxiety match the classic picture of scrambling for safety during a storm. More subtle signs of canine distress include excessive lip licking, yawning for no apparent reason, or simply having a lack of interest in the surroundings.
Methods of Relieving Anxiety
Traditional methods of relieving anxiety in dogs involve medications. Sedatives such as acepromazine, diazepam, and its cousin alprazolam, as well as fluoxetine, the antidepressant clomipramine, trazodone, and an oral gel containing a medication called dexmedetomidine can all be prescribed. Like all pharmaceutical drugs, side effects can occur following administration. Many veterinarians often recommend using medication in conjunction with behavior modification, ideally with the assistance of a qualified animal behaviorist, to maximize the potential benefits of the prescribed medication.
Complementary and Alternative Approaches
Following the trend in other sectors of the veterinary industry, complementary and alternative therapies continue to gain popularity for alleviating behavioral issues, including anxiety. Three main non-pharmaceutical means of addressing anxiety are currently used.
- Commercially available T-shirts apply gentle physical pressure, like swaddling an infant, or providing a continuous hug.
- Pheromones — hormones like the ones that animals release into the air that can control the behavior of nearby animals of the same species — can be applied. Such pheromones, currently available as sprays, collars, or in diffusers, mimic those bitches release immediately after whelping to make their puppies feel safe and secure.
- Certain nutritional supplements also reportedly help dogs that are sensitive to stressful situations. Research efforts designed to find novel means of helping such animals are blossoming. Some of these products contain ingredients extracted from leaves, stems, and the bark of various plants. For example, think about how a nice cup of chamomile tea can be relaxing after a trying, strenuous day.
Extreme care is advised when using non-regulated supplements. Just because the supplement is organic, does not mean it’s safe for your dog. Certain extracts and oils can be irritating, toxic, even potentially fatal. Problems in dosing can be concerning, especially for dogs that weigh less than 10 pounds.
After asking your veterinarian for recommendations, while perusing the shelves of your local pet store or shopping online for calming supplements, look for these ingredients scientifically shown to quickly help reduce anxiety:
- L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea;
- Extracts from the bark of magnolia trees and phellodendron plants, and;
- Whey protein extracts.
Be certain to choose a quality product. Supplements produced by reputable manufacturers using quality assurance/control systems like those used when producing pharmaceutical drugs will be more likely to contain the type and amount of ingredient listed on the label, unlikely to be contaminated by potentially harmful ingredients, and more likely to result in the desired effect. Due to the lack of government regulation of pet nutritional supplements, two important rules of thumb are (1) you get what you pay for and (2) if the product sounds too good to be true, relying on testimonials rather than science to support the supplement, it probably is.
Armed with this information, you can now stay calm and walk your dog on through fireworks, during thunderstorms, or even just past that scary looking shrubbery up ahead.
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