Anxiety in Dogs: Is It Over-Diagnosed? The Irreverent Vet Speaks Out

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It seems like more dogs are diagnosed with anxiety problems today than ever before. Even as recently as 10 years ago, separation or storm anxieties in dogs were only occasional concerns that the average vet might encounter once a week or two. Now it seems like every other client has questions about their dog’s nervous behavior.

I’m the Irreverent Veterinarian. I give my honest opinion about various controversial issues in the animal care world. I speak my mind and some might say I am honest to a fault. I tell it like it is. Some of what I say can be harsh but that doesn’t stop me-it can be hard to hear the truth.

What is going on with dogs these days? It feels like there are more and more dogs that seen excessively anxious and nervous. Can dogs have attention deficit hyperactivity disorders? I see these nervous nellies in exam rooms, in the waiting rooms and while driving around my neighborhood. Scared, anxious dogs not knowing if they are coming or going. Pulling on leashes, jumping on everyone, panting and looking very nervous. I am exhausted just watching them.

Some dogs get so wound up in exam rooms that they become aggressive and try to bite. They won’t sit down and health exams are nearly impossible. Unfortunately many owners of nervous anxious dogs…aren’t much help. They usually just sit and let the dog do whatever s/he wants in the waiting room and exam room.

It is so aggravating and frustrating for veterinarians.

I am not sure if you can tell by now but this topic brings out a lot of emotions for me.

Some people don’t even bother going to the vet. The dog is so out of control they take him/her to a shelter. These dogs are so stressed that the likelihood of them being adopted is very low and they are often euthanized.

Most of these dogs have behavioral issues that require time, patience and behavior modification on my part.

Many owners come into the clinic and ask for a magic pill.

In fact, last week I had 3 different calls in ONE DAY about anxiety…and every one of the owners asked me about prescribing medication for their dogs. What is going on here? Is anxiety really more common in dogs, or are we just better at recognizing it? Take our poll and tell me where you stand on this issue.

Come on people! There isn’t a pill to fix everything. Do you really want your dog sedated for the rest of his life – just to make your life better? Your dog’s nervousness and anxiety is primarily your fault!

For years veterinarians have been noticing an increase in the number of appointments for ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’. Dogs that are destroying furniture, scratching doors, jumping through windows, pacing the fence line, on and on.

The majority of vets try to counsel people and explain what they need to do but to no avail. People don’t want to spend the time. Some vets have just given up and prescribe human antidepressants or sedatives for ‘as needed’ situations. This is very sad and preventable.

I hope you are sitting down because the next thing I say may strike a nerve. The excessive nervousness and stress in dog’s lives is most likely due to the laziness and apathy of their owners – you! This includes vets as well. We are all susceptible to being a big part of the problem.

What Causes Anxiety and Stress in a Dog?

A dog’s life should be sleeping most of the day, taking walks, playing fetch, eating and spending some time in the potty. This is the life of a confident, well-adjusted dog.

To get that way, dogs need to know their place in the home, in the family and in the neighborhood. Dogs are not people and it doesn’t matter how much you talk (or scream) to them. They just don’t understand. They can sense you are angry or tense or sad but really don’t know why or what they can do to change it.

Dogs thrive in environments when there is a clear hierarchy. Alpha, omega and family members in the middle. There is nothing wrong with that. People seem to want everyone to be equal. No one superior and no one submissive. That may work in human society but wreaks havoc in canine society. Dogs need to either be the one in charge or know who is. If there isn’t a clear ‘king of the mountain’ the dog will feel like it is his/her responsibility.

If the dog isn’t a born leader, this can lead to a life of great anxiety. If there is no leader for guidance the dog will not know right from wrong (in the canine world). If someone approaches his ‘family’, he doesn’t know what to do. He is so happy when someone comes home he jumps and runs around. But, not even then can he calm down. He still must guard the castle 24/7. What a life of confusion!

Dogs desperately want and need discipline. Positive reinforcement is wonderful – there just needs to be reinforcement. No! is not a bad word.

Today, people just let dogs do whatever they want. They think it is cute when little dogs growl and try to bite. It isn’t cute. It is a sign that your dog needs help. You need to be the one in charge. Make sure the dog knows that. This should start as soon as the dog comes home with you. Ideally puppies are allowed to spend 12 weeks with their mothers. Stop adopting at 8 weeks. There is no advantage and it may result in dogs that don’t have appropriate social skills. The reason breeders encourage people to adopt dogs at 8 weeks is that it is illegal in most states to remove puppies or kittens less than 8 weeks away from their mothers. It isn’t the best time to bond – it is the way for the breeders to make the most money. Selling puppies at 8 weeks means they don’t have to pay to take care of them for any more time.

The one thing I want to make clear – dogs do NOT have ADD or ADHD.

Maybe dog anxiety is like ADHD where it is easy to misdiagnose. (Forty years ago “energetic” kids were told to go outside and play – and they would do that until they came in tired and hungry. Now it seems so many kids are diagnosed with a health condition e.g. ADHD and they sit all day in front of the computer or TV while medicated. Maybe the same thing is happening with dogs.)

Perhaps this has something to do with how we are less tolerant of dogs with behavioral problems and we as pet parents do give our dogs the exercise, attention and help them understand their role and rank in the family.

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