When was the last time you got premature muzzle graying?
You’re not the only one that can have anxiety and stress. Your dog is as likely to have an anxiety disorder as you are.
You might be surprised to learn that the same basic forces and chemicals that impact anxiety in humans are also at work in dogs. And some breeds are more susceptible than others. But if you love your dog and understand the breed, you can make your “best friend’s” life less anxiety-ridden.
Fear and anxiety are natural reactions to stressors and are undeniably important to survival for humans and other species: being startled and an increased heart rate means one is ready for quick action, preferential attention to threats reduce probability of missing possible threats, while insomnia reflects an alertness that overrides all else. Animals likewise display similar responses to the possibility of threat: stress hormone secretion, restlessness, decreased feeding and curtailed exploratory behavior 1.
The science and research
In humans and other species, fear stimuli activate the sympathetic nervous system, increasing adrenaline and noradrenaline secretion and increasing blood pressure and heart rate. Also, the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortical system increases blood cortisol levels.
As with humans, anxiety in dogs may lead to other negative consequences such as the physiological effects of long-term stress 2. A recent study demonstrated that anxiety was associated with premature muzzle grayness in dogs between 2 and 4 years of age, with female dogs significantly more likely than male dogs to present premature muzzle graying 3.
In a recent retrospective study it was found that dogs suffering from various forms of canine cancer were more likely to have experienced stress due to changes in household and routine 4. Yet as either species response to threat is both real and/or perceived, so too can the bond between ancestral best friends be medicine for both: after experiencing 15 minutes of human interaction, shelter dogs experienced significant cortisol reduction and associated positive behaviors 5.
“Most” and “Least” likely breeds
While we think of external threats as primary causes of fear and anxiety in dogs, genetics likewise play a major role. A study on dog breeds and their behaviors measured five dimensions of anxiety and fears in dogs when faced with various stress-inducing scenarios, such as meeting unfamiliar people, meeting other dogs, touch sensitivity, loud noises, and anxiety when separated from their human caretakers.
The type of breed mattered greatly: small breeds were significantly more anxious than larger breeds, with the miniature or ‘toy’ versions of those same small breeds (e.g. Miniature Dachshund or toy Poodle) even more fearful. High on all five dimensions were the:
- Miniature Dachshund
- Toy Poodle
- Yorkshire Terrier
The Beagle and Shih Tzu were close behind scoring high on four out of five dimensions.
Brachycephalic breeds such as Boston Terriers, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs tended to obtain lower scores, as did larger breeds, such as the:
- Golden retriever
- Labrador retriever
- Siberian Husky
These findings suggest that behavioral traits associated with specific breeds may reflect the effects of human selection for specific abilities, while others may be linked to gene mutations, as with the stature/growth defining IGF1 gene, whose pleiotropic effects are known to make small dogs more fearful, excitable, more prone to aggression and more likely to urinate when left alone.
This makes sense as smaller dogs are naturally more vulnerable to harm and injuries; therefore loud, aggressive behavior is advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. Whereas such constant noise making and aggression wouldn’t be tolerated in large dogs, owners and breeders of smaller dogs may be more tolerant of their behavioral issues 6.
Anxiety and fear can become pathological when experienced over a prolonged period and can lead to serious behavioral problems in dogs. Flight, avoidance and aggression are a few of the more common responses, yet general fearfulness, noise sensitivity, and separation anxiety are perhaps the most easily recognized canine anxiety disorders.
There is a high comorbidity between these canine anxieties; for example, more fearful dogs have a higher chance of developing noise sensitivity to sudden noises such as thunder, gunshots and car backfire. And noise-phobic dogs are generally more aggressive toward unfamiliar persons and animals but rarely toward their owners 2.
Studies on fear responses to noises in dogs, demonstrated that characteristics of dogs, early environment, and exposure to specific loud noises are involved in the development of fear responses. While personality characteristics are often associated with less salient noises (e.g. traffic, television), exposure and life experiences are associated with salient noises (e.g. gunshots) 7.
Separation anxiety in dogs has been attributed to both over-attachment and a lack of stimulation 8 and can also come about following periods of kennel housing, the death of another pet in the family, long periods of being left alone, and relocation of the family to an unfamiliar dwelling 9. Separation anxiety is more pronounced in male dogs than female ones, often resulting in the male animal’s being neutered 10.
Separation anxiety and noise sensitivity may affect the welfare of the dog and the stability of the human-animal bond. Indeed, noise sensitivity symptoms (e.g. hiding, self-trauma, and escape attempts) and separation anxiety symptoms (e.g. destructiveness, hyper-salivation, and inappropriate defecation and urination) may become difficult to tolerate for some owners. Owners may seek advice from veterinarians, behaviorists, and trainers while some may choose to relinquish/abandon their pet 9.
Canine anxiety can be treated
However, anxiety in dogs can be treated successfully using a combination of behavior modification techniques with antidepressant medications. Studies have indicated that clomipramine (a tricyclic antidepressant), when paired with a behavior medication regimen stressing safety and predictability, reduced pacing, whining and scratching in dogs after only one week, with excessive barking decreasing after two weeks 11. Dogs burdened by separation disorders found marked improvement over separation-related misbehavior following treatment involving behavior modification and fluoxetine 12.
For pet owners wishing to forego pharmacological treatments, the commercially available Anxiety Wrap (a garment that maintains pressure) has been demonstrated to be an effective means with thunderstorm phobia 13, not to mention the use of the dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP), found to be beneficial with sound sensitivity and anxiety when used in a home environment while in conjunction with a den or hide for dogs 14.
1. Bateson, M., Brilot, B., & Nettle, D. (2011). Anxiety: an evolutionary approach. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(12), 707-715.
2. Tiira, K., Sulkama, S., & Lohi, H. (2016). Prevalence, comorbidity, and behavioral variation in canine anxiety. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 16, 36-44.
3. King, C., Smith, T. J., Grandin, T., & Borchelt, P. (2016). Anxiety and impulsivity: Factors associated with premature graying in young dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 185, 78-85. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2016.09.013
4. Cannas, S., Berteselli, G. V., Piotti, P., Talamonti, Z., Scaglia, E., Stefanello, D., & … Palestrini, C. (2016). Stress and cancer in dogs: Comparison between a population of dogs diagnosed with cancer and a control population – A pilot study. Macedonian Veterinary Review, 39(2), 201-208. doi:10.1515/macvetrev-2016-0088
5. Willen, R. M., Mutwill, A., MacDonald, L. J., Schiml, P. A., & Hennessy, M. B. (2017). Factors determining the effects of human interaction on the cortisol levels of shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 186, 41-48. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2016.11.002
6. Serpell, J. A., & Duffy, D. L. (2014). Dog breeds and their behavior. Domestic dog cognition and behavior (pp. 31-57). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
7. Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W., & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145(1/2), 15-25. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
8. Horwitz, D. F. (2009). Separation-related problems in dogs and cats. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioral Medicine (pp. 146-158). British Small Animal Veterinary Association, Gloucester, UK.
9. Sherman, B. L., & Mills, D. S. (2008). Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38(5), 1081-1106.
10. Storengen, L. M., Boge, S. K., Strom, S. J., Loberg, G., & Lingaas, F. (2014). A descriptive study of 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 159, 82-89. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2014.07.006
11. Cannas, S., Frank, D., Minero, M., Aspesi, A., Benedetti, R., & Palestrini, C. (2014). Video analysis of dogs suffering from anxiety when left home alone and treated with clomipramine. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(2), 50-57.
12. Karagiannis, C. I., Burman, O. P., & Mills, D. S. (2015). Dogs with separation-related problems show a “less pessimistic” cognitive bias during treatment with fluoxetine (Reconcile™) and a behavior modification plan. BMC Veterinary Research, 11(1), 1-10. doi:10.1186/s12917-015-0373-1
13. Cottam, N., Dodman, N. H. & Ha, J. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the anxiety wrap in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia: An open label trial. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8, 154–161
14. Landsberg, G. M., Beck, A., Lopez, A., Deniaud, M., Araujo, J. A., & Milgram, N. W. (2015). Dog-appeasing pheromone collars reduce sound-induced fear and anxiety in beagle dogs: a placebo-controlled study. The Veterinary Record,177(10), 260. http://doi.org/10.1136/vr.103172
Cinzia Cottù Di Roccaforte earned a Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University Los Angeles in 2019. She received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from UCLA in 2011 and her Master of Arts in clinical psychology with emphasis in Marriage & Family Therapy from Pepperdine University in 2014. Dr. Roccaforte has been working with Dr. Alexander Bystritsky at the UCLA Anxiety Disorders Program. Dr. Roccaforte and Dr. Bystritsky also collaborated writing articles for Anxiety.org.