Your dog could feel anxious for many reasons. Changes in household dynamics can be stressful, as can the loss of a companion pet, illness or recovery from surgery – even raised voices can make a dog feel jittery. ‘A lack of routine, inconsistent handling or conflict with another animal are also big stress triggers,’ explains clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar.
In Petplan’s 2018 Pet Census, 55% of owners believed their pet had suffered from a mental health issue and 10% of owners claimed their pets had suffered from ‘depression’. Just 36% of owners with young pets thought their animal was vulnerable to mental ill-health, while 43% of owners of pets aged eight or more thought this.
There are potential reasons for this. ‘Older dogs are often less tolerant of change and may avoid social interaction, while dementia can have an effect on anxiety levels and joint or muscle pain is very stressful, too,’ says Inga.
Spotting the signs
‘Even though pet-owners are more aware of how common dog stress can be, it can be easy to miss the small signs,’ Inga points out. ‘They usually realise there’s an issue when their dog starts biting or responding with aggression.’ Inga advises to watch out for these early warning signs of a stressed dog and ask your vet or a pet behaviourist for advice:
‘If your dog is licking his lips when there is no food or treats around, it can be a sign of stress,’ says Inga. ‘Dogs will often do this when they visit the vet, or when faced with unnerving situations.’
‘If your dog yawns when you wouldn’t expect him to feel tired, it could be a sign he’s uncomfortable with a particular situation,’ Inga explains. ‘The approach of a child can cause this reaction because your dog is anxious about what might happen next.’
3. Turning the head sideways
‘On a walk, your dog is likely to look this way and that because it’s an exciting experience. But in a situation where you wouldn’t expect your dog to turn his head from side to side, it could mean he’s feeling stressed,’ says Inga.
4. Hunching down
A dog that is crouched or hunching down, with his tail between his legs, is so anxious that he’s actually on the edge of fear. ‘Some dogs will also move away and try to hide,’ adds Inga. ‘Conversely, stress in dogs can cause an over-reaction in behaviour – such as jumping up and barking frantically. But a telling off could make your dog feel even more stressed.’
5. Unusual toilet habits
‘Urine-marking in the house can be your dog’s way of making himself feel more safe and secure,’ Inga points out. ‘An upset stomach is another sign of stress – your dog may be finding it difficult to poo, have diarrhoea, or he might need to toilet more often. He may even have gone off his food.’
What should you do next?
The sooner you notice the signs, the less chance your dog’s stress will escalate into more serious behaviour issues. Pets can cope with a certain amount of anxiety, but a ‘normal’ stress reaction should only last a short time, and end when the trigger has gone. If it lasts longer, or happens more often, your dog’s anxiety could be escalating into a fear or phobia.
‘It’s really important to know what your dog looks and sounds like when he’s happy and relaxed,’ says Inga. ‘Dogs have lots of early warning signals for stress, so anything that seems unusual should be thought about. Try to identify the source of his anxiety and remove it if you can.’
Tips to beat dog stress
Finally, if you’re finding it hard to identity the problem, Inga recommends easing your dog’s stress with these simple tips:
- Provide safe, quiet places to hide – like a cupboard under the stairs, under a table, or a dog crate draped with blankets. ‘This is especially useful for sound-sensitive dogs.’
- Stick to routines – for sleeping, feeding, exercise and play.
- Manage your own voice and body language – ‘Owner stress or erratic behaviour can lead to dog stress.’
- Try not to get cross – ‘Your pet isn’t “acting up” to annoy you.’
- Use a pheromone plug-in diffuser or spray.
- Consider specially formulated nutritional supplements – these are available from your vet and are a natural way to help ease stress.