Tag Archives: Canine 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.