how to calm dogs with anxiety naturally
Anxiety and mental health issues have been a growing problem among humans in the modern age. One novel treatment has been the use of therapy dogs, there’s been numerous success stories of four-legged heroes helping people alleviate stress and depression.
At the same time however our dogs might be suffering from similar concerns. One pet insurer in the UK saw a sixfold increase in the number of mental health claims in just three years.
Dogs and humans have surprisingly similar neurological processes and so its perhaps understandable that we see dogs experiencing similar mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Fortunately, that means that a lot of the ways in which we support humans with mental health problems – for example doing exercise and using natural calming herbs – can be used to help dogs too.
We’ve put together all the current thinking on anxiety in dogs and treatments to give you the best guide to managing anxiety for your dog naturally. As with any medical problem, if your dog shows signs of anxiety, get advice and help from your veterinarian or a veterinary behavioural specialist.
what is anxiety
Anxiety is a general term to describe a state of distress, fear or nervousness. It can be a perfectly rational and proportional, temporary response to a threatening situation – such as when a dog is surrounded by lots of loud, new people. However, it can become more of a problem if the anxiety is out of proportion to the threat and causes significant distress to the dog, or if anxiety is persistent regardless of the context the dog finds itself in.
The physical discomfort a dog exhibits when anxious is reason enough to help calm them but its important to note that the stress can also cause longer, lasting damage. High blood pressure can weaken arteries and even lead to blindness, nervous behaviour can lead to direct physical injury or even self-harm, and changing hormone levels can impact a dogs’ immune system, making them more susceptible to illness. All of this makes for a good reason to help try to support those feeling anxious.
A chihuahua showing classic signs of anxiety, nervousness and fear – a cowering position, tail between the legs and ears pinned back
how to spot an anxious dog
There’s lots of signs your dog may be anxious or nervous, the most common of which we’ve outlined below. Each dog is different, and the way they experience and display their anxiety will be different so they may manifest some of these but probably not all.
Fearful body language – the classic sign a dog is suffering from anxiety is their body language – a cowering posture with their tail between their legs, their ears pinned back and their eyes begging for reassurance. It’s a look that’s sometimes mistaken for guilt but is actually more symptomatic of fear.
Nervous behaviour – alongside body language comes nervous behaviour – shaking or shivering, pacing around the room, stalking or clinging to their owners or safe places and whining all show dogs are nervous.
Destructive and aggressive behaviour – if you leave your dog at home then return to a bombsite it can be tempting to think they’ve simply had a lot of fun at your expense. However, this destructive behaviour can often be a sign of distress and anxiety as can barking, howling and aggressive chewing.
Strange behaviour – lastly anxious dogs may exhibit more uncommon behaviour including urinating and defecating, vomiting, coprophagia (the act of eating poop!) and even self harm (chewing their own feet for example).
understanding the cause of anxiety
n order to help support a dog suffering from anxiety it’s important to try to understand what’s causing the anxiety. In most cases anxiety will fall into one of three groups:
Separation anxiety – this is the most common cause of anxiety that lots of dog owners have to deal with. Leaving your dog while you run errands, go off to work or even go off on holiday, can leave dogs feeling isolated and anxious. As ‘dog whisperer’ Cesar Milan explains “Dogs are pack animals and there’s nothing more unnatural than being away from their pack”.
Temporary anxiety – dogs often suffer anxiety and fear from temporary situations that are new to them, disorientating or uncomfortable. Thunderstorms, trips to the vet, being introduced to are all common situations in which dogs can feel anxious.
General, persistent anxiety – certain dogs are more likely to suffer from a more persistent anxiety that can be harder to attribute to a specific cause. More intelligent and/or hyperactive breeds like border collies, labradors, bichon frise, german shephards, cocker spaniels, basset hounds and greyhounds often have issues with anxiety and there are genes associated with anxiety that can be passed from parents to puppies. Dogs that have suffered trauma, or even simply less maternal care and socialisation in early life, like some dogs from puppy farms or rescue shelters, also often suffer from persistent anxiety.
4 ways to treat anxiety in dogs naturally
You should always tailor the treatment you give anxious dogs to the cause of their anxiety, and later in this article we consider ways to treat the three causes of anxiety identified above. However, all treatment essentially falls in to four groups and they should all be considered as part of any treatment programme.
Exercise – on a biological level, exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin which can improve a dog’s mood, but exercise can also help improve a dog’s independence and socialisation which can reduce anxiety. Exercise can be one of the hardest areas to improve as a dog owner but we’ve some more tips on our article on how to help overweight dogs.
Training – helping dogs manage the psychological aspect of anxiety is a significant part of any treatment programme regardless of the cause. Some anxious behaviours can even become learned so that the dog begins to repeat anxious behaviour even when they’re not anxious! Teaching them ways to self-soothe, associate positive outcomes with the sources of their anxiety, and conditioning them to stop anxious behaviours. Note its important that training is positive – punishment is a cause of anxiety among dogs and will most likely not help.
Calming aids – anything that helps your dog relax and soothes their anxiety can be used as a calming aid. There are lots of products out there – thundershirts or anxiety jackets are one of the most popular, but there are also a wide range of toys, aromatherapy products (Rescue Remedy is a great natural one), pheromone sprays, music pieces and even TV shows out there that can help. Often simply offering your dog a safe, quiet, relaxing, cubbyhole in your home is the best calming aid together with an interesting outdoor space to play and exercise. A gentle massage can also help them relax.
Diet – lots of foods and nutrients have been found to assist with improving mental health and combatting stress in both dogs and humans alike. Antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E help support healthy brains. B vitamins help reduce irritability and support adrenal glands which reduce stress. L-tryptothan, an amino acid, helps produce serotonin which improves mood. Omega 3 oils act as an anti-inflammatory which help reduce inflammation in the brain. Probiotics and prebiotics support the ‘gut-brain’ axis. We’ve included lots of these nutrients in our Balanced Life dog food and our gentle air drying process minimises any nutritional loss, including from fragile nutrients like amino acids. Find out more about how our food supports anxiety at the bottom of the article.
In extreme cases medication may be used – typically drugs that support serotonin production or act as sedatives will be prescribed.
The ultimate cure to separation anxiety – doggie day care. However, there are other, less expensive, ways to combat separation anxiety.
treating seperation anxiety naturally
Dogs are innately social animals which, on the one hand makes them great companions, but on the other can mean they’re anxious when alone. Often therefore this exhibits in anxious behaviour – pining, urination or defecation, scratching doors and chewing anything that’s lying around. Here’s how to help stop that.
Train separation from an early age – training them to accept separation, self soothe anxiety and entertain themselves while you’re away from an early an age as possible is essential to dealing with separation anxiety. Don’t make a big deal before you leave and after you return – it will only increase their anxiety when you’re away. Its recommended to give them a distraction before you leave such as an occupier toy or treat like a stuffed Kong and to ignore them for a short period on your return until they’re calm (which can be very tough!). Some trainers also believe separation anxiety is related to a concern for you when you’re away and can be combatted by training them to accept you as the authoritative pack leader and someone they don’t need to worry about.
Exercise before you leave – one study from Finland found that the largest environmental impact on separation anxiety among dogs was exercise. Exercise can help release serotonin, improve a dog’s independence and calm them through exertion. As such its best to take your dog for a walk before you’re going to go out for the day. Taking them for a walk immediately after you return home will only increase their positive association with your presence and the anxiousness for your return.
Make sure they have access to relaxing and engaging spaces – make sure they have a calm, comfortable, quiet and contained space to retreat to with an occupier toy or treat so they can soothe themselves when anxious. Equally important is access to a stimulating outdoor area where they can have fun, exercise and go to the toilet! Fun is a great distraction from loneliness. If you can, doggie day care is obviously a great way to avoid seperation anxiety and there are also remote controlled toys and cameras available now too.
Feed them appropriately – feeding a healthy diet that’s full of nutrients that boost mood and brain power will help anxiety. Don’t feed them immediately after you’re return as it will heighten anxiety when you’re away and anticipation of your return.
treating temporary anxiety from thunderstorms, trips to the vet, a new baby and other events
Lots of dogs get nervous and scared by common situations – whether it be a phobia of thunderstorms, a trip to the vet or the arrival of a new baby. Planning ahead and training your dog to deal with these events can help make them less stressful and save your home from some anxious accidents.
Train positive association – dogs are creatures of habit and new stimuli can disturb them. You can desensitise your dog to certain stimuli by gradually introducing it. For example playing a recording of a storm at increasing volume or introducing clothes that smell of a new baby before the baby comes home can help get them used to the idea before it happens. Its important to introduce these things gradually and when they’re already calm.
Create a safe cubby hole – creating a safe, comfortable, quiet den that they can relax in is key. Putting a few treats in there during an anxious event like a storm or party will also help distract them.
Soothe them – a massage can help improve your dog’s mood as can calming herbs like chamomile, passion flower, valerian and skullcap.
Exercise increases serotonin levels and helps teach confidence, independence and sociability. It can even help establish you as leader of the pack which helps your dog feel safe.
treating general, persistent anxiety naturally
Persistent anxiety can often have deep roots in either early trauma or genetic disposition and treatment may often be about helping your dog cope rather than curing the issue. Treatment should focus on long-term measures rather than short-term solutions like medication
Making home a safe environment – ensuring your home is a comfortable, safe and quiet environment for your dog is key. It might not always be easy in a house with kids so create a space that is exclusive for them and keep the kids away. A consistent routine will also help reduce unexpected surprises and calm their mood.
Positive reinforcement – punishing anxious pets for exhibiting anxious behaviour (like urinating inside) will likely make them more afraid and unlikely to stop them doing it again, particularly if it’s a long time after the event. Gentle support such as a massage, treats or toys when you notice they’re anxious are better tools.
Tough love – giving an anxious dog lots of love and support will help but only if its given in the right way. Teaching your dog obedience will let them know you are head of the pack and help them feel more secure. Surprisingly hugging your dog might make them more anxious whereas a thundershirt or anxiety vest can calm them.
Healthy exercise and diet – plenty of exercise will help produce serotonin, improve their confidence and sociability while a healthy, balanced, holistic diet can also help improve their mood.
Balanced Life – a natural remedy for anxious dogs
We’ve crafted our Balanced Life recipes to ensure they’re full of nutrients that can assist stressed or anxious animals. Our gentle air-drying process minimises the nutritional loss you’d normally see in cooked pet foods, even with fragile ones like amino acids. Here’s how Balanced Life supports anxiety:
Proteins provide key amino acids and energy – our recipes are very high in animal protein, important sources of amino acids like tryptophan and tyrosine which help support serotonin production and reduce stress, as well as great sources for energy for exercise
Antioxidants support brain health – cranberries and alfalfa are rich sources of antioxidants including vitamin A and C which help reduce anxiety and depression
B vitamins support brain health – we include organ meat in Balanced Life as an incredibly rich source of vitamins. Liver in particular provides high levels of cobalamin (B12) and folic acid (B9) which help reduce anxiety. Our alfalfa, lentils and beetroot ingredients also help contribute these important ingredients.
Prebiotics support the ‘gut-brain’ axis – flax seed, kelp and chicory root in our food act as prebiotics – insoluble fibres that are fuel for probiotics to boost gut health. There are emerging studies increasingly showing the impact gut health has on the health of the brain and conditions like anxiety and depression
Omega 3 reduces inflammation in the brain – omega 3 fatty acids in our meat (particularly Salmon, Lamb and Kangaroo recipes) as well as flax seed help reduce inflammation at a cellular level in the brain
Find out more about our air dried raw dog foods here