anxious dog

My golden retriever, Angus, can sense a thunderstorm when it is still hundreds of miles away. He starts panting, shaking and going from room to room trying to find a safe place to hide. And he is not alone. Dogs are more sensitive to loud noises than humans and may also be more aware of the changes in air pressure that occur when a storm approaches. According to expertsdogs are instinctive, so while they may not realize why they are scared, they can sense a threat nearby.

But it’s not just storms that make our pets nervous. Going to the vet, riding in a car, and meeting strangers can all have the same effect, depending on the animal. So how do you know if your pet is anxious and what should you do about it?

Read more: Why some dogs are afraid of fireworks and what to do

Christy Flynn, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, says several signs can point to pet anxiety. “Although dogs and cats can’t verbalize that they are anxious, we can tell through their body language and in some cases through vocalizations,” says Flynn.

Signs that your pet is anxious

Noticing these more subtle signs of anxiety and taking steps to make them more comfortable can help calm your pup, Flynn says. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Panting without feeling hot

  • Yawning without fatigue

  • No appetite

  • Holding the ears back

  • Showing the whites of their eyes (This is called a whale’s eye.)

  • Raising their front paw

  • Leaning away from you

  • Wrinkling of eyebrows

If anxiety in dogs is not addressed, it can progress to more serious signs of anxiety such as:

  • Urination or defecation

  • Door damage

  • Bark or howl

  • Snapping or biting

According to Flynn, cats are not as obvious in the way they show anxiety compared to dogs. But there are a few signs to look for. “Pay attention to dilated pupils or if they seek privacy or attention more than usual. Sometimes cats resort to over-shaping or inappropriate elimination as a result of a stress-inducing challenge,” she says.

What to do if your pet is anxious

It really comes down to avoiding situations that make your pet feel anxious. In some cases this is not possible. I can’t stop thunderstorms from terrorizing Angus, but I can take steps to make the situation less alarming.

Dog trainer Michelle Lehr says you need to make sure your dog feels like he has a safe place to go that limits disruptive noise and chaos. Talk to your vet about medications as well as alternative treatments like CBD, acupuncture and even pet massage.

Plus, Lehr says, a physically active dog tends to be less anxious. They need “plenty of exercise and play time; it’s very good for physical and mental health,” she says.

Some research also shows that “desensitization or contraindication training” by a dog trainer can help pets overcome their anxiety. A 2019 study published in the journal Animals looked at whether desensitization training could reduce fears around vet visits. The technique involves exposing pets to lower levels of a stimulus that they would normally find frightening in an attempt to reduce the pet’s anxiety response.

According to the study, “owners reported a marked improvement in their dogs’ fear levels during training sessions, and overall fear scores decreased during the second examination for trained dogs.”

Read more: Dogs can smell our stress

After all, some pets are just more anxious than others, just like some people are more anxious than others. But you can take steps to make their environment more calming and less chaotic. Provide your pup with a safe place to escape with their favorite toys and treats, a comfortable bed, and of course, lots of cuddles.

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