Tag Archives: anxiety

Helping ‘Zeke’ to Chill – Why some anxious dogs need medication

Zeke’s owner Ella had lot of experience raising other dogs, including her chilled female Pug X, Morgan. But puppy Zeke (also a Pug X) was different. He seemed anxious and aroused on his walks, barking and lunging at unfamiliar people, dogs, cars and bikes with hackles raised. Ella was especially concerned when Zeke reacted  aggressively towards children as her own baby was on the way. It was a fiasco getting through the gate into the dog park and he would visibly shake with dilated pupils during car trips. Games were no fun as Zeke’s mouthy play had escalated to biting hard and holding on!

Ella had taken Zeke to puppy preschool and tried adolescent obedience classes with an experienced trainer, however Zeke could only focus enough to learn when taken off to a far corner away from the other dogs. So with one month to go before Ella’s baby was due, Ella and Jordan brought 9 month old Zeke for a veterinary behaviour consultation.

Zeke’s issues stemmed from an underlying anxiety, a common cause of behavioural problems associated with a physical anomaly in brain chemistry.  This is a medical disorder caused in part by his genetic makeup as well as previous experiences.

Anxious animals, like anxious people have trouble coping with even small changes in routine. They also react fearfully towards ‘normal’ things in their world because they perceive these as threats. Unfamiliar dogs, people, kids and car trips were so distressing for Zeke that he would go into a fight or flight response in an attempt to escape or avert the trigger for his fear.

Anxious dogs have trouble learning new things because they are focused on what they perceive as life threatening matters around them. Their fear brain is in overdrive and hijacks their ability to think. This is where medication can help turn things around. Just as we might treat a diabetic dog with insulin to manage their illness, medication is helpful to manage anxiety.

Zeke was prescribed anti-anxiety medication to normalise his brain chemistry so that he could better cope with perceived stressors in his day to day life and learn calmer responses.

Is medication enough to cure anxious behaviour?

In most cases anxiety can be managed but not cured and medication alone is not enough. Anxious behaviours including fear aggression, separation anxiety, noise sensitivity and compulsive disorders require a three pronged treatment plan supervised by a behaviour veterinarian for best results. These animals do not grow out of their anxiety and without treatment they can get worse with time. Life continues to present opportunities for the dog to rehearse and reinforce the fear response.

During the behaviour consultation, and detailed in the report that followed, we formulate a plan with Ella and Jordan:

  • To modify Zeke’s exposure to the environmental triggers in order to reduce opportunities for him to practice the anxious behaviours.
  • To practice simple training tools that reinforce calm behaviour.
  • To use anti-anxiety medication and calming pheromones to set Zeke’s brain up for success
What is the effect of the medication?

Anti-anxiety medication is not sedation. The medication prescribed for Zeke increases serotonin levels in the brain and helps these nerve pathways to function more normally over time. This helps him to be less reactive and improves his ability to learn that calm behaviour is rewarding. By dampening the reactivity, Zeke can better learn positive associations to things that previously scared him. Ella compared Zeke with her’ normal’ dog, Morgan who rested most of the time between periods of exercise. Zeke remained bright and alert, however the medication helped him to be less restless and reactive.

When does the medication start to work?

There are two main categories of anti-anxiety medication – long term daily medication to reduce general anxiety levels and short term medication given as needed to manage particular stressful events.

The long term medications prescribed for Zeke take 6-8 weeks to become properly effective although further improvement can be expected up to 12 months after beginning. As they take effect, Ella has noticed Zeke is better able to learn and she finds it easier to teach him to be calm. She knows to take baby steps and choose times to reward calm behaviour where there are few distractions.

Event medications work quickly, often within an hour of dosing and can help greatly for potentially stressful events like thunderstorms, vet visits or being left alone. Zeke found a recent storms scary and coped best when Ella let him snuggle into bed with her. This is a situation where an event medication may help to calm Zeke and block his memory of the storm so that future events are less scary.

How long will my pet be on medication?

We recommend that Zeke continues the medication for at least 12 months so that it can take full effect and give Ella enough time with Zeke to shape calm habits. There is no quick fix for changing anxiety based behaviours. Behaviour modification is different from obedience training. Effective behaviour change is about changing the underlying emotional response to the situations that previously triggered fear. This takes time.

The length of time on medication differs with each individual case and follow up is important to reassess each individual’s needs. The severity of the problem, the desired outcome, the commitment to the behaviour modification program, the family and environmental situation and the pet’s reaction to the medication all influence the length of treatment.

In some cases, the pet’s behaviour problem is managed so successfully that we can wean them off the medication. In other cases, both pet and owner have a much better quality of life if the pet remains on medication long term.

Is medication safe for my pet?

All medications have the potential for side effects and these differ with each one. Generally speaking, side effects of the anti-anxiety medication that we prescribed for Zeke are rare or mild. Personality changes are not expected. The most common side effects associated with the baseline anti-anxiety medications, are a transient gastrointestinal upset or reduced appetite and mild sedation that resolves during the first two weeks. Behaviour medications are excreted through the liver and kidneys so we check with a blood test before starting and then annually to ensure these organs remain healthy.

What about pheromones?

Dog appeasement pheromone is a synthetically derived chemical identical to that produced by female dogs during lactation, which acts to calm and reassure their pups. It has been proven to help reduce anxiety in both puppies and adult dogs during stressful situations. It is available as a diffuser, spray or collar. Ella set up the diffuser to help Zeke relax indoors.


Some positives for Zeke, Ella and Jordan since starting him on medication to reduce anxiety: 

  • Medication has helped us teach him to be calm which means he can be included in baby time. He can interact with the baby instead of being separated.


  • Zeke can now watch TV with us at night without seeking our attention by mouthing at us


  • We had tried to implement things such as sitting behind a toddler gate when visitors arrived but before the medication he would try to jump the gate and we had no success. He still has room for improvement but now we can get him to sit and wait for small periods of time. 


  • When walking Zeke on lead it was almost impossible to get him to walk past houses with dogs barking in the windows or at the gates and now we can hold his attention long enough to walk past these houses with little disruption.


When Harry’s Home Alone – managing separation anxiety

One would have thought that Harry, the adolescent Cocker spaniel had all he could want to be happy with life. His loving owner, Jill walked him twice a day, a definite highlight for Harry who exuberantly greeted every person and dog he saw. He enjoyed mental enrichment through fun training for treats daily and went to puppy day care for extra play time each week. At night he slept in his bed near Jill’s and she had set up a comfy spot in the main living area for him when she went out.

However, Jill became concerned that Harry was not as happy as he could be. With the upheaval of the house renovations, it became more noticeable that Harry was not coping when she went out. He had become destructive and barked when he was left alone. He would whine when Jill went out of sight inthe next room. Harry was constantly seeking attention by nudging Jill and jumping up. Jill tried not to reinforce this behaviour by ignoring it, however he would nag her more and mouth her to gain attention. Harry paced restlessly and only relaxed when he was in close contact with Jill. It got to the point that he was so anxious when alone that he would not touch his food or water until Jill came home.

When Jill brought Harry in for a behaviour consultation, it was no surprise when he was diagnosed with separation distress, a form of anxiety disorder. Harry was not being naughty. Rather his behaviour was a sign that he was anxious and distressed when alone. His pacing, barking and destructive behaviours were his efforts to find Jill and cope with the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Dogs suffering from separation distress can show a range of signs. Some may injure themselves or property in a desperate attempt to escape and find their owner whilst others suffer in inconspicuous silence, trembling and salivating until the owner returns. Sadly, many that vocalise their anxiety are labelled as nuisance barkers and fitted with aversive collars that trigger with each bark and increase anxiety.

As for humans who suffer from anxiety, our canine companions can experience ‘amygdala hijack’, when the danger-brain works overtime and perceives threats that are not real. Rather than functioning in a calm and logical way, Harry’s brain reacted fearfully whenever he was alone. Anxiety is a physical disease linked with an imbalance of certain neurochemicals in the brain and tends to become worse over time. Every time Harry reacted anxiously to a perceived threat or panicked about being left alone, the neural pathways for the fear reaction become strengthened.

Like any behaviour problem, genetics, past learning and the present situation all contribute to the cause.

Treatment is aimed at:

1. Managing the imbalance in Harry’s brain with anti-anxiety medication and calming pheromones.

2. Improving resilience and fostering a calm emotional state through behaviour modification exercises that positively reward calm.

3. Managing Harry’s environment to help him to feel safe when alone.

Video footage is often helpful to assess the response to treatment by revealing the pet’s body language when they are alone.

Jill embraced the treatment plan with a strong commitment to help dear Harry become a happier dog. It’s 16 months further on now and Jill is very happy with his progress.

Some comments from Jill

Harry is not the first dog to be a large part of my life but he is the first to display behavioural problems. He was destructive, continuous barking and unable to settle down or relax.

After Harry’s anxiety diagnosis, the plan included medication to help alleviate his stress and a job for me to modify his environment and my actions. This was and still is a trial and error arrangement with initially error being the main result. Over time I have come to understand Harry’s anxiety so that now his good days (less anxiety) far outweigh his bad days (anxiety driven).

I am still learning and will continue to learn what causes his anxiety. For example, yesterday I received a phone call which resulted in me immediately leaving him alone and being absent for about 4 hours. I returned to a very anxious Harry. I had previously learnt that Harry needs more notice before being left alone at home, unfortunately I didn’t consider this yesterday.

Harry is worth the commitment to make his life as happy as I can, he is definitely a ‘keeper’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Calming the nerves of your anxious companion

Like people, many pets suffer from forms of anxiety. If your pet cannot settle during thunderstorms or fireworks or perhaps your pet cannot settle if you are not present, then talk with Dr Helen Purdam about some strategies to help the both of you cope.

It may be as simple as some crate training advice like setting up a safe den or fitting the pet with a thunder shirt. Having an Adaptil or Feliway diffuser near the pet’s den can also help them to settle.

For pets who need more support to become less anxious, we can provide a full behavioural consultation. Contact reception on 6230 2223 for more information.

It’s Polite Pets month!

It is Polite Pets Month, which focuses on how to recognise and treat anxiety, fear and phobias in our furred and feathered friends. Up to 20% of our pets suffer from anxiety and this can result in behaviours that are unacceptable like aggression, separation and noise phobias and toileting where you would rather they didn’t!

Finding out the true cause of these behaviours is essential to managing them effectively. Jumping on the punishment wagon can worsen anxiety driven problems.
Behaviour issues are best treated sooner rather than later so that you can maintain a happy family! Dr Helen is available for behaviour consults. Call reception to arrange a time.

Nuisance barkers

Unwanted barking irritates owners and neighbours alike.

Some dogs bark a lot because of:

1. Boredomthe dog that’s home alone a lot

Breeds such as Border collies, Kelpies and Cattle dogs were bred to work and are happiest when they have a job to do. Their energy, stamina and intelligence is wasted when they are left alone with little to do for extended periods and they become bored and frustrated.

All breeds want to be with their pack, usually their owners, and become bored when home alone. Bored dogs bark, try to escape or are destructive, chewing hoses and shrubs or digging in the garden.

2. Anxietythe dog that follows you everywhere

If left alone some individuals experience separation anxiety and bark for extended periods.

Other anxious dogs bark at threatening people or objects, such as the mailman or hot air balloons.

3. Disturbancesthe dog that barks for 5 minutes when visitors arrive

Postmen, birds, passers-by and meter-readers set these dogs off. They then feel rewarded when the intruder leaves, apparently as a result of their barking.

4. Discomfortthe dog who starts barking unexpectedly

Barking from a normally quiet dog may indicate pain or an inability to access food or water.

5. Excitementthe dog that barks until you throw the ball

What you can do

Try to understand the cause of the barking so that you can choose the most appropriate solution from the table below. If you’re not quite sure of the cause try some of these solutions anyway – you might find one that works!

Causes of barking problems Boredom Separation Anxiety Disturbances Discomfort Excitement
Possible solutions
1. Exercise * * * *
2. Training * * *
3. Play toys/dogs * * *
4. Hunting food * * * *
5. Change of routine * * * *
6. Veterinary care * *




  1. Exercise (for barking caused by boredom, separation anxiety, disturbances and excitement)

Dogs need exercise, some more than others. Working breeds require more regular exercise but even a couch-potato enjoys some outdoor entertainment. They all appreciate walks at different times of day and in variety of places, from the bush to the beach.

If walking the streets doesn’t appeal to you and your dog is friendly towards other dogs visit an off leash area. There he can play with other dogs or you can throw a ball or frisbee for him to chase.

Boredom is less of a problem in well-exercised dogs. Once home they are content to snooze or find a quiet activity.

2. Training (for barking caused by boredom, disturbances and excitement)

Training occupies a dog’s body and mind. It stimulates the bored dog and calms the overexcited dog.

The key to training is to find the most motivating reward. Food treats like dried liver or cheese are the number one motivator for most dogs. A special toy or praise works for dogs who are not food motivated.

Ask your dog to sit before every privilege, whether it’s a meal, titbit or ball game.

3. Play (for barking caused by boredom, separation anxiety and disturbances)

A play with puppy pals in the local dog park provides excitement and stimulation that will keep your dog quieter when he returns home.

Avoid play dates with other dogs if your dog tries to get away or squares up for a fight instead of play.

Most dogs love a ball or frisbee game with their carers.

At home rotate the toys you put out so that they retain their novelty value.

4. Food (for barking caused by boredom, separation anxiety, disturbances and excitement)

Games and food toys stimulate dogs as well as occupying their mouths so that they cannot bark!

Create a food hunt by scattering dry food around the garden or house. The hunt occupies their noses and minds as they search out every last biscuit. This is particularly good for the dog who has separation anxiety as it distracts their attention from the leave-taking.

Food packed or frozen inside toys that release it slowly, like Kongs and Treat balls, forces dogs to chew, paw and roll the toys around to extract the morsels of food.

Note that these foods are instead of, not in addition to, normal meals.

5. Change of routine (for barking due to boredom, separation anxiety, disturbances and discomfort)

Many dogs are comforted by routines. They like to know when to expect food and walks.

However, bored dogs want something different and stimulating – a walk at a different time of day or in a new location. Building a raised platform might also break the monotony for them.

Change your departure routine if your dog suffers from separation anxiety. Give him a toy or chew to keep him occupied. Scale down your goodbyes and returns by acting more casually. If he barks on your return ignore him until he quietens down then greet him calmly.

To prevent your dog reacting to predictable disturbances like the mailman, bring him inside or confine him to a different area.

You could experiment with blocking the sight lines of over reactive guard dogs.

6. Veterinary care (for bad cases of separation anxiety and discomfort)

Barking in a normally quiet dog may signal ill health.

Some dogs with anxiety related problems require medications in conjunction with tailored behaviour modification to learn calmness.



Festive season for pets?

Spare a thought over the festive season for our pets.  Christmas is a fun time of year for humans but it disrupts our animals’ lives, causing stress and untoward changes in their behaviour.

Potential sources of stress include:

  • Car travel
  • Boarding
  • Visitors to their home
  • Parties and increased noise in the neighbourhood
  • Fireworks
  • Changes in routine
  • Visits to unfamiliar environments such as a holiday house or extended family

Many pets become anxious under these stresses. Their behaviour changes to cope with the stresses. These behavioural changes are usually temporary but occasionally turn into long-term, serious problems.

How can we reduce our pets’ anxiety this Christmas?

Reassure your pets in unfamiliar circumstances by allowing them to stay close to you and spending as much time with them as possible. If you have to leave them, give them something familiar like bedding or your shirt.

Provide a comfortable safe hidey hole with lots of fun things to do if visitors are expected or you are planning a party. Long lasting treats like stuffed Kongs and chew toys keep dogs engrossed and happy.

Avoid confronting a dog with anyone they fear. Children or big men frighten some dogs.

Don’t punish a frightened dog or make it face up to its fear. This usually makes an already tense dog more anxious.

Try not to initiate any more fears in your pet. A house suddenly full of noisy party-goers and no secure place to hide will make a timid dog frightened of more people.

Pheromones, naturally produced communicators, reduce anxiety significantly in many pets.   ADAPTIL® (containing Dog Appeasing Pheromone) and Feliway® (containing a calming cat pheromone) are synthetic copies of the animals’ own natural pheromones. They reduce behaviour changes resulting from stress or anxiety.

Feliway replicates the feline facial pheromone that cats rub around their environment so they feel relaxed and at home.

ADAPTIL (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) replicates the pheromone the dam releases when suckling her puppies. It reassures dogs of any age, reducing anxiety and preventing fear and stress related behaviours.

If behaviour resulting from fear and anxiety is out of proportion to what is happening or causes long lasting problems then schedule an appointment with one of our vets. They will work through a programme of retraining or behaviour modification in conjunction with a prescription drug, appropriate for your pet.


Aggressive Dogs

Meghan Herron, veterinarian author of a recent study on dogs aggressive to other dogs says “the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.”

The use of such confrontational training techniques can provoke fear in the dog and lead to defensively aggressive behavior toward the person administering the aversive action.

Far better to use non-aversive training methods including:

  • Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression afterward)
  • Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
  • Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
  • Rewarding the dog for “watch me” (0%)

With consistent and regular sessions using these positive methods, aggressive dogs slowly gain confidence in their owners and become easier to take out on walks.

“Canine aggression and other behavior problems are not a result of dominant behavior or the lack of the owner’s ‘alpha’ status,” Heron says, “but rather a result of fear (self-defense) or underlying anxiety problems. Aversive techniques can elicit an aggressive response in dogs because they can increase the fear and arousal in the dog, especially in those that are already defensive.”

These fear inducing, aversive techniques should be avoided:

  • Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression in response)
  • Growling at the dog (41%)
  • Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
  • “Alpha roll” (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
  • “Dominance down” (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
  • Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
  • Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
  • Spraying the dog with a water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
  • Yelling “no” (15%)
  • Forced exposure (to something that frightens the dog, such as tile floors, noise or people) (12%)