Courage the Cowardly Dog: Anxiety in Dogs

June 28, 2021
For Dogs

Do you remember the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog?

If not, you should go watch an episode. It’s just as hilarious (and scary) now as it was back in the early 2000s.

If you don’t know what we’re talking about, let’s go on a journey back in time to the ancient year of 1999.

In late 1999, a cartoon aired on Cartoon Network that starred a loveable, and very frightful, purple dog named Courage. Courage lived on a desolate farm in the middle of Kansas with his owners Muriel and Eustace.

During the show’s four season run, Courage and his owners encounter a variety of spooky villains ranging from monsters to demons to zombies to mad scientists. Most of the time, the theme of the story rests upon the ability of the scared dog, Courage, to save his owners from certain peril.

Now, why are we talking about this long-gone cartoon? Because, like the cartoon dog, millions of pups all over the world suffer from the same inhibiting anxiety that Courage did. However, unlike the cartoon, dogs in the real world can’t just decide to become more courageous and get over their fears.

Instead, dogs in the real world often have to deal with managing their response to fears that they don’t understand. What’s worse is that many pet owners don’t understand or can’t recognize the signs of anxiety in dogs, and so the dog’s anxiety only gets worse.

To combat that, we’ve written this short article to explain what causes anxiety in dogs, how to diagnose it, and how to treat it.

What Causes Fear in Dogs?

Fear is a completely normal response to stimuli that we recognize or perceive to be threatening. However, sometimes these fears can metastasize into something much bigger in our minds, something that is almost too horrible to look at or confront. When fears are exaggerated to the point where they’re no longer manageable, these are called phobias.

A dog can develop a phobia from a variety of unfortunate circumstances. One of the most common phobias a dog may experience is a phobia of other dogs, especially dogs who they aren’t familiar with. This phobia often arises as a result of poor socialization training when the dog was a puppy. Similarly, poorly socialized dogs may also develop a phobia of unfamiliar people, especially those who behave or look differently than the dog is accustomed to.

Another common phobia is the fear of inanimate stimuli such as loud or unfamiliar noises, environments, or a combination thereof. If your dog can’t stand Mr. Hoover, it’s likely they have some degree of fear towards the loud, whirring sound of the vacuum cleaner. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for dogs to develop fears of specific scenarios and situations that make them uncomfortable, such as going to the veterinarian or the groomer.

However, the most common cause of anxiety or fear in dogs by far is separation anxiety: it’s estimated that roughly 14% of domesticated dogs suffer from some form of separation anxiety. Unfortunately, separation anxiety is not a monolithic disorder. For some dogs, their separation anxiety stems from a fear of being left alone by their owners; this is the more classic form that most people are familiar with. For other dogs, their separation anxiety may just be triggered by a stark change in their routine.

While the discussion so far may make it seem like the vast majority of anxious disorders in dogs stems from a fear of the unknown, it should also be noted that plenty of dogs develop anxiety from other sources. For some dogs, their anxiety is a secondary result of an underlying illness (talk about a double-whammy). For example, dogs that suffer from hypothyroidism may develop anxiety as a result of their hormones being out of balance. Similarly, dogs who develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) may become anxious due to the….well…pressure on their brain!!

We must also remember that, like humans, some dogs are simply wired to be a little more anxious than other dogs. We wish we were joking about that because it’s so unfair, but c’est la vie: some dog breeds are just more likely to develop general anxiety than others. Interestingly, researchers at the University of Helsinki have recently made the case that certain anxieties actually cluster within specific breeds after studying 200 dogs across 14 breeds. For example, they found that nearly 10% of schnauzers that they observed were aggressive and fearful towards strangers, whereas nearly every labrador retriever that they studied showed no fear at all towards strangers. They then posited that perhaps this difference in anxieties might be explained by genetic variance between breeds.

Previous research backs up this claim. One stretch of DNA in German Shepherds, for example  presents an oxytocin receptor gene OXTR.  This receptor gene was found in a 2019 study to be associated with both higher sociability and higher noise sensitivity. The researchers at The University of Helsinki suggest that, by breeding more social dogs, we have unwittingly bred more sensitive ones, too.

How is Anxiety in Dogs Diagnosed?

By and large, anxiety disorders will present themselves within the first two years of your dog’s life. During this time, it’s imperative that you, as their pet parent, watch them closely for two reasons: to understand what their normal behavior is like, and to catch any sudden and stark deviation from those expected behaviors.

When a dog does develop some sort of extreme fear or phobia, they will likely begin presenting with some combination of behavioral and physical symptoms. It’s important to note, however, that the mere exhibition of these symptoms is not necessarily a cause for concern. We all get a bit anxious sometimes and need someone to rub our belly and tell us it’s okay!! It’s only when these anxious behaviors become recurrent that further evaluation and treatment should be pursued.

A dog who is feeling anxious may begin to engage in destructive behavior, such as clawing, tearing, or thrashing at their crate or at items in your house. They may also begin nervously pacing throughout your house or, may present a general restlessness that is insatiable. Anxious dogs may even forgo their house training and begin urinating or defecating in their living space as a result of working themselves up too much. Insert here

If your dog begins to engage in any of these behaviors with regularity, it may be time to consult with your veterinarian about professional treatment.

How Do You Treat Anxiety in Dogs?

Because excessive anxiety is often the result of a confluence of factors, your veterinarian will likely prescribe a combination of training, prevention, and, in some cases, medication.

In most cases, treatment of anxiety in dogs begins with either trying to change the dog’s emotional response to the anxiety-inducing stimuli (this is known as counterconditioning) or by trying to replace their response with a desirable one using reinforcement-based techniques (this is known as response substitution). In order to make this training as effective as possible, you may want to consult with a professional dog trainer who will know how to administer these techniques in a way your dog will be most receptive to.

However, as Merck Veterinary Manual describes, these approaches will only be as successful as the dog allows them to be. Given that many dogs who are highly anxious respond to perceived threats with autonomic, reflexive responses, it may be necessary to reduce their arousal levels by either minimizing the intensity of the stimuli through desensitization training or through medication.

On the subject of medication, it should be considered that some anxiety disorders may be too intense to be effectively treated with just training. SSRIs and other antidepressants may be prescribed to dogs who have anxiety that is not capable of being alleviated by training. The most common SSRI prescribed for dogs is fluoxetine, although other drugs such as sertraline or citalopram might be prescribed if fluoxetine is found to be ineffective.

It’s important to note that your veterinarian may suggest that you administer benzodiazepines to your pup up to one hour before any predictable anxiety-inducing event (such as a firework show, going to the groomer, etc) as a means of tamping their emotional response to the stressful stimuli  Hence careful planning/scheduling is also involved.

Also, some dog owners report success with using CBD oil to treat their pooch’s anxiety. To review, CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound that is found in cannabis and hemp plants. CBD is different from marijuana because it does not contain the compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), so ingesting it would not lead to the psychoactive effects that we commonly ascribe to the feeling of being “high”.

CBD oil is commonly used by humans due to its observed anti-inflammatory effects, anti-nausea properties, and anti-anxiety impact. However, current research on its effectiveness at treating anxiety in dogs is rather limited and thus any claims about its definitive benefit for dogs should be very carefully evaluated.

That being said, more research is being conducted every day. At the moment, the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation is sponsoring a study with the Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to evaluate CBD’s effectiveness at treating treatment-resistant epileptic dogs.

Moreover, any responsible dog owner should also recognize that, due to a lack of research and regulation with the CBD market for pets, there is considerable variation in quality between products. With this in mind, we recommend that you only ever buy CBD products that willingly provide a chemical analysis of their products with each purchase. Or, better yet, only purchase from your veterinarian. This will give you the peace of mind that what you’re putting in Fido’s tummy poses no risk to him.

Additionally, you should consider that perhaps there might be an underlying medical condition causing your pup to fret that could be treatable at home. A variety of unpleasant and unsightly ailments that affect your dog may cause them to develop anxious tendencies, such as skin infections, ear infections, and more.

If you suspect your dog is suffering from any of the above, reach for Banixx! This clinically-proven formula provides instant, sting-free, odor-free relief from a variety of maladies without relying on pesky steroids or antibiotics. All you have to do is identify the affected area, apply Banixx twice daily for a few days, and wait. Within minutes, your dog should feel like a brand new pup. With Banixx, relief really can be that easy.

We know that, as a loving pet parent, you only want what’s best for your pup and to make sure they can continue living a happy, healthy, anxiety-free life. That’s why we hope you’ll keep visiting our dog page to learn more tips on how to keep your pooch worry-free!