Dogs, cats and other pets can get anxious — and it’s usually not the owner’s fault

When Tian Chee Lu adopted elderly rescue dogs Max and Chopper during one of Melbourne’s lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns, the positive mental health impact was instant.

“You come home from a bad day and they comfort you. All they want is cuddles and love,” Ms Lu said.

But within weeks of the adoption, she noticed Chopper was not coping.

“She was really anxious around other dogs,” she said.

“The moment Chopper saw any other dog… she would beeline for them and then she’d react, bark at them, and run away.”

Chopper the dog has been undergoing treatment for anxiety for six months. (ABC News: Matt Holmes)

Ms Lu took Chopper to see veterinary psychiatrist Jacqui Ley, who diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder.

As in humans, anxiety is a natural emotion. But roughly one in five dogs have an anxiety problem, Dr Ley said.

A smiling woman in glasses and pink t-shirt sits in a vet office
Dr Jacqui Ley specializes in animal mental health and treats anxiety disorders in all kinds of pets.(ABC News: Matt Holmes)

Anxiety common but doesn’t always look the same

Some anxiety symptoms in dogs are similar to human anxiety, for example, elevated heart rate and blood pressure.

There are also behavioral signs, which vary, but often include hypervigilance, restlessness, pacing, aggression, trembling, panting, excessive grooming and barking or howling.

“For animals with anxiety disorders, they will display these behaviors in situations that are not necessarily anxiety-provoking,” Dr Ley said.

But a dog displaying symptoms of anxiety does not necessarily have an anxiety disorder.

“We see a lot of anxious behavior in dogs that are experiencing pain, especially low-grade chronic pain,” Dr Ley said.

She said it was important that concerned dog owners see their veterinarian to rule out other health issues.

A husky cross german shepherd dog lying down
Like in humans, traumatic experiences can contribute to a dog’s anxiety. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)

Do anxious humans lead to anxious dogs?

Research suggests dogs can pick up on chronic anxiety and stress in humans and experience correspondingly elevated stress hormones.

But Dr Ley said that does not mean owners are passing on their own issues to their dogs.

“If you have two anxious individuals together, they will tend to ping off each other … but you can’t make a neurotypical animal anxious without working incredibly hard at it”.

A smiling woman wearing black sits with a white dog in her lap
Ms Lu adopted Max (pictured) and Chopper during the COVID-19 pandemic. (ABC News: Matt Holmes)

While the causes of dog anxiety are still not fully understood, genetic and environmental factors, as well as trauma, can contribute.

Environmental factors can include a lack of routine, punishment-based training methods, excessive noise and disruption, as well anything else that hinders a dog from getting its basic needs met.

“That can be really confusing for them and that can be anxiety-provoking,” Dr Ley said.

A lack of training, however, is not a cause of dog anxiety.

“A lot of people are told that you haven’t trained your dog right — you’ve let your dog sleep on the bed, on the couch … but none of that plays a role,” Dr Ley said.

“If the dog has a problem, the dog has a problem. Just like if the dog has diabetes, the dog has a pancreas that’s not working properly.

A hand cuts dog food on cutting board next to a packet of antidepressant medications.
Antidepressants are one of the most common medications for pet anxiety. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Pet anxiety often treated the same way as humans

But it is not just dogs. Cats and other pets—including birds, lizards, turtles, rabbits, and snakes—can also get anxiety disorders.

But anxiety does look different from species to species.

“There’s a number of animals out there whose anxiety disorder is not being picked up because they’re not actually showing it to people,” Dr Leys said.

Cats are one example. Already secretive by nature, cat anxiety often manifests in hiding behaviors or in spraying or urine marking around the house.

Ziggy
Many cats are also on antidepressant medications for anxiety. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)

Treating anxiety, though, is similar for most pets.

“They need to be diagnosed and treated just like any other health problem,” Dr Ley said.

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