Fears, Phobias, and Anxieties in Dogs
Fear is the instinctual feeling of apprehension resulting from a situation, person, or object presenting an external threat -- whether real or perceived. The response of the autonomic nervous system prepares the body for the freeze, fight, or flight syndrome. It is considered to be a normal behavior, essential for adaptation and survival; its context determines whether the fear response is normal, or abnormal and inappropriate. Most abnormal reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure.
Moreover, the persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus is referred to as a phobia. is a persistent and excessive fear of a specific stimulus, such as a thunderstorm. It has been suggested that once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it, or the memory of it, is sufficient enough to generate a response. The most common phobias are associated with noises (such as thunderstorms or fireworks).
Anxiety, meanwhile, is the anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in normal body reactions (known as physiologic reactions) associated with fear; most common visible behaviors are elimination (i.e., urination and/or passage of bowel movements), destruction, and excessive vocalization (i.e., barking, crying). Separation anxiety is the most common specific anxiety in companion dogs. When alone, the animal exhibits anxiety or excessive distress behaviors.
Profound fear and withdrawal of unknown cause (so called idiopathic fear and withdrawal) has also been noted in certain dog breeds, including the Siberian Husky, German Shorthaired Pointer, Greyhound, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Pyrenees, Border Collie, and Standard Poodle, among others. There appears to be a strong familial component, with the likelihood of a genetic influence.
Most fears, phobias, and anxieties develop at the onset of social maturity, from 12 to 36 months of age. A profound form of fear and withdrawal of unknown cause occurs at 8 to 10 months of age. Old-age-onset separation anxiety of unknown cause may be a variant of a decline in thinking, learning, and memory in elderly dogs.
Symptoms and Types of Anxiety in Dogs
- Mild fears: signs may include trembling, tail tucked, withdrawal, hiding, reduced activity, and passive escape behaviors
- Panic: signs may include active escape behavior, and increased, out-of-context, potentially injurious motor activity
- Classic signs of sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity, including diarrhea
- Anxieties: lesions secondary to anxious behavior (such as licking and biting at the self)
Causes of Fear and Anxiety in Dogs
- Any illness or painful physical condition increases anxiety and contributes to the development of fears, phobias, and anxieties
- Aging changes associated with nervous system changes; infectious disease (primarily viral infections in the central nervous system), and toxic conditions, such as lead poisoning, may lead to behavioral problems, including fears, phobias, and anxieties
- Fear from a terrible experience; dog may have been forced into an unfamiliar and frightening experience
- Dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful
- Phobias and panic may have a history of inability to escape or get away from the stimulus causing the phobia and panic, such as being locked in crate
- Separation anxiety: history of abandonment, multiple owners, rehoming, or prior neglect is common; exacerbating the condition may be that the dog has been often abandoned or rehomed because of separation anxiety
Diagnosis of Fear and Anxiety in Dogs
Your veterinarian will first want to rule out other conditions that might be causing the behavior, such as brain or thyroid disease. The behavior could also be originating from a response to a toxic substance, such as lead. Blood tests will rule out or confirm such a possibility.
If your veterinarian diagnoses a simple fear, anxiety, or phobia, a prescribed medication may be all that is needed. But your doctor will most likely make recommendations based on your individual dog, the fear trigger, and types of beavhioral techniques that can be used to alleviate your dog's fears and anxieties.