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How do I help my stressed dog?

Stressed pug advice

Common causes of stress in dogs include boredom and loneliness

© Shutterstock

A dog walker, your spare clothes or a behaviourist could be how you could best help your stressed pet.

By Dr. Liz Barton MA, VetMB, MRCVS

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Just like us humans, dogs can be stressed. In dogs too, how they show their stress can vary greatly – from aggresion to whining. And sometimes their stress can be for the short term and other times for the long term. The key to helping your pet with their stress is finding the cause and then finding the best treatment to reduce or cure it – and bear in mind that all dogs are individuals.

What are the signs of stress in a dog?

Stress in dogs can manifest as vocalisation, including howling, barking and whining; repetitive behaviours, such as circling, pacing, destructive behaviour and tail chasing; a change in personality, such as withdrawal or aggression; and clinical problems such as self-trauma (tail or foot biting) and an increased risk of infection.

How can I relieve my dog's stress?

The first step to relieving stress is to understand the cause. If it is separation anxiety, then reducing time away from the home will help, as will increasing the concentration of your smells (such as leaving a worn T-shirt near your dog’s bed). Boredom can cause stress, especially in active breeds, so having a dog walker come in the middle of the day, if you’re out at work, may solve this. If you’re not sure what is causing your dog's stress, it is good to speak to a vet or a dog behaviourist to discuss your dog’s routine. They will have more experience of discovering potential stress triggers for your dog.

What can cause stress in dogs?

Common causes of stress in dogs include boredom, loneliness, separation, frustration, chronic pain or irritation, a loud or threatening environment, being deprived of food or water and fear.

Can a dog die from stress?

As in people, stress has many negative effects on the body, including increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased metabolism, reduced immunity and increased risk taking. Stress will make a dog more at risk of danger and more prone to disease, reducing their length of life.

What dog breeds are prone to anxiety?

Working breeds are commonly affected by anxiety, including hounds such as pointers and weimaraners; German and Belgian shepherd dogs; Labradors; Staffordshire bull terriers; Border collies; and some smaller or show breeds, such as bichon fries and poodles.

What does anxiety look like in dogs?

Anxious dogs may show behaviour change, such as isolation and withdrawal. Or they may display manic behaviours, such as persistent barking, whining, pacing or even self-trauma, such as excessive grooming. Dogs may also become destructive – chewing furniture, or urinating or defaecating inappropriately. Stress can include clinical symptoms such as diarrhoea, reduced appetite, shaking and panting.

How can I calm my dog's anxiety naturally?

It is important to recognise the symptoms of stress and not punish your dog, if they a stressed or anxious. This will just increases the level of stress and makes the problem worse. The best way to reduce anxiety is to remove the source of fear. If that’s not possible, or they are still anxious, the best way to calm them is to reassure them that you are not anxious with soothing words. Giving them gentle affection will cause the release of oxytocin, which helps to reduce stress immediately. Some dogs like to be cuddled, others prefer their own space – it’s important to let them choose – and thus it's important that you provide a safe space for them. Sometimes distraction can help, such as taking them for a walk or playing with a toy.

What are the best calming aids for dogs?

Calming aids include pheromone diffusers, thundershirts and food supplements. Different things work for different dogs, so it’s good to try them one by one and then in combination to find out what works best for your dog. There are increasing amounts of video and audio content specifically created to help calm dogs – gentle classical music has been shown to reduce stress levels for dogs in veterinary hospitals (unlike other forms of music).

What positive things can I do for a dog with anxiety?

It’s important to figure out the source of anxiety to decide what might be the best calming aid for your dog. Anxious dogs may benefit from distraction – such as exercise, playing with toys or video content designed for stressed dogs. Companionship from people or other dogs may help for some dogs. Having a safe space with familiar smells, and safe access to clean food and a healthy diet are important. Dogs are all individuals, so different things will work for different dogs.

How do you treat severe anxiety in dogs?

If anxiety is severe and behavioural training and home modifications have not helped, then medication may be needed to suppress anxiety. Some dogs may need this for short periods, such as going into kennels, recovering from surgery or during fireworks season. Other dogs may have to be maintained on medication for prolonged periods. It is best to try to wean them off medication over time, as other anxiety-relieving measures are put in place, since behaviour modifying drugs do have side effects.

How can I stop my dog having separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is very common in some breeds. Obviously, reducing the amount of time away from home and then gradually increasing it again can be tried. If the anxiety returns, then leaving well-worn clothes that smell of you will increase the amount of your smell, and reassure the dog that you are nearby. Distraction with video content can be helpful, and having another person visit the dog to walk and distract them may also help, such as a dog walker.

How do you treat an anxious dog?

Initially, reducing the source of anxiety and behavioural modifications should be put in place for your dog. If these do not work, then home remedies such as pheromone diffusers and thundershirts can be tried. If your dog is still anxious, it may be time to talk to a vet about medication to reduce anxiety.

When should I see a vet?

It’s important to speak to a vet, if the stress of your dog is making them – or you – unhappy and negatively impacting on their and your welfare. It is best to address stress early before behaviours become ingrained and habitual. It's a problem that is likely to get worse over time, if it is not addressed. A vet is likely to recommend a discussion with a dog behaviour specialist before resorting to mood-altering medication.

What should I ask a vet about prescription diets for a stressed dog?

An initial conversation with a vet should not focus just on the stress of your dog. The vet will want a full understanding of your pet’s medical background to make sure there are no underlying conditions. They will also want to know about the environment and routines for your dog – including what they eat, where they live and their exercise routine. This will give a clear picture of some measures that may be important to reduce stress in order for other treatments and diets to be effective. Diets for stressed dogs are a relatively recent development, and may be useful in helping reduce stress in the long term, if other changes cannot be made to the dog’s environment or routine.

Some links in this article will redirect you to My Family Vets website.

Ask for advice

Worried about your pet?

Speak to a qualified vet online, from the comfort of your home