Can dogs have panic attacks? Read on to find out about the signs, causes, and treatment for dogs who develop severe panic-related issues to help your canine.
Sudden and intense bursts of fear and anxiety characterize panic attacks in dogs. These episodes are debilitating and scary for your pup, and dogs suffering from long-term stress are likely to experience panic attacks at some point in time. Anxiety issues can occur in as much as 70% of the canine population, so they’re not uncommon. But canine panic attacks are much harder to deal with than issues such as separation anxiety.
Dog panic attacks differ from phobias and anxiety, and we need to understand the differences to help them. Dogs need our help and support whenever they deal with these dreadful conditions. The first step toward providing support is learning the symptoms, causes, and diagnosis of panic attacks in dogs.
Can Dogs Have Panic Attacks? The Difference between Anxiety, Phobias, and Panic Attack In Dogs
Dogs can experience panic attacks when prolonged stress escalates into recurrent bouts of fear that have physical responses. Physiological responses to panic attacks in dogs include trembling, heart palpitation leading to an elevated heart rate, and nausea.
Usually, panic attacks lack a specific trigger but are common in dogs experiencing chronic stress. Dogs with ongoing anxiety are constantly stressed by circumstances that wouldn’t disconcert other dogs. For these pups, anxiety can easily veer into a panic when unpleasant situations prove too much to handle. Dog trainers know this phenomenon as “flooding” and it happens when a dog is so overwhelmed by a situation that they have a severe reaction.
Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias in dogs vary significantly, although their symptoms may overlap. Phobias have specific triggers that elicit intense reactions in dogs and can be defined as an irrational fear of something such as thunderstorms. In contrast, panic attacks occur suddenly and without any apparent reason or cause.
Many dogs experience anxiety in their day-to-day life. Anxiety occurs when dogs dread specific events as a threat because they anticipate a negative experience. Most dogs calm down when their fight or flight responses dwindle after the situation passes. But if stress is prolonged and dogs are born with a nervous disposition, they can get “stuck” in a state of hyperarousal. This means they can no longer regulate their stress responses, and they can have episodic attacks that are quite similar to human panic attacks.
Signs of Panic Attacks in Dogs
Dogs can’t communicate their feelings, but pet owners are remarkably good at identifying unusual mannerisms in their dogs. Paying attention to the signs your pup displays enables you to help your dog and seek medical attention when they need it. An episode of panic can present itself in any of the following ways:
- Increased heart rate
- Excessive salivation
- Involuntary urinating at the spot or in unusual places
- Freezing or standing still
- Fear signs like pulled-back ears, lowering the head, and a tucked-in tail
- Vocalizing and excessive whining
- Attempting to run away
If you notice any of the signs listed above, your dog may be having a panic attack. It’s important to stay calm when your dog is experiencing feelings of fear and panic. Dogs can mirror their owners’ emotions when they detect an increase in cortisol, a stress hormone, making them even more nervous.
Causes of Panic Attacks in Dogs
Panic in dogs occurs when they feel like they can’t get away from something threatening, resulting in a looming sense of distress. Panic attacks in dogs typically result from prolonged feelings of high stress and are sudden, sometimes happening without apparent triggers. The situations outlined below are likely to cause panic in dogs unable to cope with their anxiety.
Busy schedules prevent pet parents from spending all their days with their dogs. Some dogs panic when left alone because they fear the overwhelming feelings of loneliness that follows. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety exhibit signs of panic and intense fear when their owners prepare to leave the house.
Provide mental stimulation when you’re away from home to distract dogs prone to separation anxiety. The PawSafe dog snuffle mat provides mental stimulation because your dog has to sniff out their treats. The treat foraging keeps your dog busy, relaxing them in the process if your absence is a trigger for fear.
Separation anxiety is a serious issue because your dog can seriously injure themselves in an attempt to escape. Dogs with excessive attachment to their owners can develop long-term trauma if left alone for long hours. Such dogs have an emotional overreaction towards being alone, manifesting as panic and chewing on everything in sight.
Loud noises such as thunder
Dogs have very sharp hearing and can hear high-frequency sounds undetectable to human beings. Thunderstorms and fireworks are major causes of panic in many dogs. Loud noises trigger fear and noise anxiety, and some pups take extreme measures like jumping through windows to escape this noise.
Canine noise aversion is a condition where certain noises cause deep fear in dogs, similar to human panic attacks. If your dog panics during storms or fireworks, create a safe space for your dog in the house and turn on the TV or radio to drown out the noises and distract your dog.
Experiences like the loss of a previous owner or a fellow household pet can leave dogs traumatized and depressed. Even though dogs don’t understand the concept of death, they show signs of anxiety when they realize their owners aren’t coming back home.
Recently rescued dogs could have experienced abuse in their previous homes or on the streets. They may show signs of panic when you perform harmless actions like raising your hand. Recently abused dogs snap when approached by strangers and are easily startled. However, not all fearful dogs were recently abused. Some are genetically predisposed to developing anxiety disorders and fear.
Diagnosis of Panic Attacks in Dogs
Dog panic attacks can be frightful for the owners to watch. Panic attacks cause so much distress to dogs that they can’t just snap out of it. If you can stop the uneasiness with toys, treats, and other distractions, they’re probably nervous. Nervousness causes paw licking and could be why your dog hides their treats.
Diagnosis for panic attacks enables your pup to receive much-needed medical attention. If your dog has had multiple panic attacks, it’s best to have them checked by the vet. If there’s another person around, have them take a video of your dog during the attack to show the veterinarian its severity.
Recording the circumstances leading to the attack helps determine the exact cause of panic. The vet can prescribe anxiety medications such as fluoxetine, alprazolam, and Tranxene to treat panic attacks. Medical practitioners can also suggest behavioral therapy to deal with the attacks on an emotional level.
Medical examinations guarantee that panic-like symptoms aren’t masking a disease. Your pup may have ingested toxic substances like theobromine, a component of chocolate, or poisonous plants. A toxic substance in your dog’s system could cause symptoms similar to those of a panic attack.
How to Help a Dog Having a Panic Attack
The most crucial step in helping a panicking dog is to remain calm, as that would heighten the anxiety. These tips will help you manage your dog’s panic attacks and minimize their intensity.
Calming supplements with natural ingredients like chamomile, melatonin, and valerian root help relieve stress. The concept behind anxiety vests is that the pressure they apply on the dog’s torso reduces stress, similar to hugging a distressed person. Pheromones like Adaptil mimic the relaxing dog appeasing pheromones (DAP) similar to those lactating mothers produce until puppies are weaned.
Create a haven
You can prepare a room or area in your house where your pup can escape in high-stress times. Crate-trained dogs are likely to feel safest in their crates but don’t close the door as they can feel confined. Set up your dog’s bed in a safe space and offer treats and toys to distract them for a positive experience.
Don’t punish your dog
Avoid punishing your dog even when constant whining and yelping get on your nerves. Your pup isn’t in control of their emotions during a panic attack. Yelling at your dog, using a shock collar, or forcing them to stay still will only worsen the feelings of panic and interfere with your relationship with your pup.
Physical and mental stimulation and distractions
A tired dog is a calm one. Going for daily walks and exercising your dog keeps them physically and mentally healthy. Busy dogs are less susceptible to dwelling on unpleasant emotions until they become full-blown panic attacks. You can do basic training and commands like “roll over” to help calm your dog in high-stress situations.
Dogs can suffer from panic attacks like humans, and they aren’t any less severe. Thunderstorms, separation anxiety, and traumatic experiences are major causes of panic in dogs. Anxiety vets and calming supplements offer a level of relief from stress, along with medicine like alprazolam.
You must stay calm when your dog has a panic attack, as they’ll mirror your calm emotions and relax more. Don’t punish your dog because their physiological and emotional responses aren’t in their control during a panic attack. You can create a safe space for your dog in the house or crate train them for high-stress situations.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.
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