Anticipating a fearful or negative experience with certain people, objects, animals, or situations can lead to anxiety.
But when does anxiety veer into panic? Can dogs have panic attacks? Here’s everything you need to know about panic attacks in dogs.
Can Dogs Experience Panic Attacks?
Dogs can certainly experience panic attacks, similar to people. People who suffer from panic attacks report a sudden feeling of intense fear.
They may experience a physiological response, such as an elevated heart rate. They may also sweat, tremble, be nauseous, and have a headache.
Usually, there is no specific trigger, but the panic attack can occur during times of high stress.
How Can We Tell If a Dog Is Having a Panic Attack?
Of course we cannot ask a dog how they feel, but we can look for the signs of panic, such as:
Looking for a place to hide
Seeking their owner’s attention in a frantic manner
Pawing or jumping up on their owner
Digging in the bed, closet, or bathroom
Gastrointestinal upset (immediate defecation or diarrhea, for example)
One of my canine patients who was experiencing panic pulled out the drawer under the oven and tried to hide in the opening.
How to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety, Phobias, and Panic Attacks in Dogs
Is your dog having anxiety, suffering from a phobia, or having a panic attack?
Phobias vs. Panic Attacks in Dogs
How we distinguish a phobia from a panic attack is based on a presence of a trigger. If there is a specific trigger that elicits those intense reactions from your dog, then it may be classified as a phobia.
People with phobias have described it as experiencing an irrational fear of something. This feeling can be similar in dogs.
Usually there is no trigger that causes the panic attack in a dog.
Dog Anxiety vs. Panic Attacks
So what about anxiety?
Anxiety comes when your dog is dreading a specific event or situation. The anticipated threat can be real or perceived.
An example is a dog showing signs of anxiety before a vet trip. They have picked up on the cues that they are going to the vet, and become anxious about the encounter. Some signs of anxiety in dogs include:
Eliminating inappropriately or involuntarily
Soliciting attention from their owners
Pulling ears back against their head with the head lowered and tail hanging down or tucked under the abdomen
Tips For Helping Dogs Cope With Panic Attacks
Dogs that experience panic attacks should receive a thorough physical examination from their veterinarian. Diagnostic tests may be performed to rule out any medical causes for the reactions.
Provide Plenty of Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Pet owners should also make sure they provide plenty of physical and mental exercise for their dogs—as long as their veterinarian approves the level of exercise.
A minimum of a 15-20 minute walk and/or 15-20 minutes of play every day can reduce a dog’s stress levels.
Providing your dogs with puzzle toys to work for their meals can also help stimulate and tire out their brain.
Short training sessions can be helpful to keep your dog mentally occupied as well.
Offer Comfort to Your Dog During a Panic Attack
If your dog is having a panic attack and he comes to you for attention, you can pet, hug, or hold him if that helps ease the signs of his panic.
Depending on how intense the episode is, you can try to:
Distract and redirect your dog to play with toys
Take your dog for a walk
Practice basic dog obedience cues or tricks for high value-treats
Other dogs may enjoy being pet, brushed, or massaged by their owners.
You should also provide a place for your dog to hide. Play calming classical music and make sure the space is free of external stimulants (house traffic, other pets, etc.). You can also use dog pheromone sprays or plug-in diffusers to help reduce anxiety in that location.
Look Into Supplements or Medication to Help Manage Your Dog’s Panic Attacks
Some dogs may benefit from the use of natural supplements such as l-theanine or l-tryptophan. Both are ingredients that have a calming effect on animals.
However, if your dog experiences intense panic attacks, where they are hurting themselves by trying to jump through windows or chewing or digging through the walls, they need to see their veterinarian to have antianxiety medications prescribed for them.
Antianxiety medication can be used as needed. In some cases, a pet may benefit from a daily maintenance medication to keep them calmer overall.
If your dog is experiencing panic attacks on a regular basis, then the maintenance medication can help them cope with these episodes. It may also reduce the frequency and duration of the panic attacks.
Avoid Punishing Your Dog
Just like with humans, getting angry at someone who is experiencing panic will rarely resolve the issue. In most cases, it will only make it worse.
So, yelling at your dog, spraying them with water, forcing them to lie down, or using a shock collar is not going to help a dog that’s experiencing a panic attack.
These techniques will only increase fear and anxiety. Your dog cannot control their emotions or physiological responses in these scenarios. If they could control themselves and choose another option, they probably would.
No one who has experienced a panic attack reported that it was a pleasant experience and wanted to experience another. Your dog needs your love and support to help them through their time of need.
By: Dr. Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB
Featured Image: iStock.com/dageldog