In recent years, we’ve seen a revolution in the way we humans approach health and healing in the West. With more and more evidence of just how strongly linked the mind and body are, practices that decrease anxiety and promote calm such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are growing in popularity.
We now know that managing stress and anxiety is just as important for our overall physical health as diet and exercise. And the same goes for your dog.
When your dog becomes anxious, you may see the obvious symptoms such as excessive licking, chewing, panting, or pacing. But there is much more going on beneath the surface that, if left unchecked, can lead to more serious health problems.
Anxiety and the Fight-or-Flight Response
Just like humans, when dogs become anxious and fearful, their bodies respond by going into what’s called the fight-or-flight response. This is an ancient physiological reaction originally designed to help us survive in extreme conditions, say if we were walking across the plains and suddenly came across a saber tooth tiger. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood the system, increasing the heart rate and directing blood away from the stomach and intestines and into the muscles, so we have the strength to run away from, or stay and fight, the saber tooth tiger.
The issue is that both humans and dogs are no longer accessing this response to actual physical threats, only to perceived threats. In today’s world, both humans and our dogs tend to live pretty cushy lives when it comes to truly life-threatening situations. But the mind is a powerful thing, and our bodies don’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived one.
In effect, we are accessing the fight-or-flight response much more than necessary. A man who is already running late and hits traffic experiences it as he curses the other drivers. A dog with separation anxiety experiences it every time their family leaves the house.
How Anxiety Affects Your Dog’s Health
Although anxiety may not be the first thing that comes to mind when your dog is experiencing a health issue, it may be the underlying cause. If you have an anxious pup who is accessing the fight-or-flight response on a regular basis, the excess of stress hormones can lead to serious physical issues. Here are some of the most common:
- Weakened Immune System – When anxiety becomes a chronic problem, too much cortisol in the body weakens the immune system. This makes your dog less capable of fighting off any infections or diseases they may be exposed to.
- Exacerbated Illness – For dogs who are already experiencing health issues, cortisol has an anti-healing effect that slows down the recovery process. Cortisol also has an inflammatory effect, so in pups with chronic issues like arthritis, the increased inflammation can make symptoms worse.
- Poor Digestion – When blood is regularly being directed to the muscles and away from the intestines, this makes your dog’s body much less effective at proper digestion. This can lead to a build-up of toxins, which in turn can lead to illness.
- Diarrhea – Loose bowels can be another result of excess adrenaline, as a decrease in blood flow to the stomach and intestines causes diarrhea in many dogs.
- Skin Problems– When dogs have a build-up of energy from stress hormones, fidgeting is often one way they’re able to release it. This is why an anxious dog will often start licking or scratching themselves excessively. This can lead to irritating skin issues or even infection.
- Sleep Issues – An anxious dog with an increase in stress hormones may not be able to settle down enough for a good night’s sleep. Sleep is when the body restores and repairs itself, so lack of quality rest can lead to poor health.
How You Can Help
So now that you know all the negative effects anxiety can have on your pup’s health, what can you do about it? Here are some of the best ways to treat anxiety in dogs:
- Maintain a predictable routine and environment. Just like human children, our fur children benefit from a regular routine and environment. This helps them to feel secure in their space, and that they are safe knowing what to expect day-to-day. Stick to a predictable routine, with regular walks, meals, and playtimes. Don’t vary what they eat too much, move where the toys are kept, change the location of their dog bed, rearrange your furniture often, etc. Of course, this requires balance, as too much lack of variety can lead to boredom, but keep in mind that an anxious dog will benefit immensely from the security of a mainly predictable routine and environment.
- Make them feel less alone – If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, try keeping the radio or TV on when you leave the house. You can also leave a light on when you go out at night so they’re not left alone in the dark.
- Try canine massage – Therapeutic touch can be a wonderful anxiety reducer for dogs, helping to calm the nervous system and release endorphins that counteract stress hormones. Click here for our step-by-step instructions for how to massage your dog.
- Play and exercise with your dog regularly – Physical activities like walks, a game of fetch, or a romp at the park are a great way for your dog to release the excess energy that comes with anxiety and stress.
- Provide a safe space – Provide your dog with their own crate or set apart a special area in your home that you dog can “escape” to when they’re feeling anxious, for example when you’re throwing a party or when there’s a thunderstorm. You can even provide them with a security blanket or toy, or sit with them until the anxiety-inducing event has passed.
If you’ve ever felt stressed or anxious (and we’re willing to bet you have), you know just how debilitating it can be. And when left untreated in your dog, anxiety can turn quickly from a minor problem into a major health concern. What’s interesting is that it’s been proven that dogs have the ability to greatly reduce stress in their human companions – this is why therapy dogs are so popular. So the least we can do is return the favor and help our pups to lead calm, happy, and healthy lives.