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CANINE ANXIETY: SCIENCE VERSUS STIGMA



Something I see regularly on social media is requests for advice and opinions on over-the-counter remedies and supplements for canine anxiety. Often, there are comments such as, “my dog’s anxiety isn’t bad enough yet to warrant medication”, or, “I’d prefer not to medicate my dog, so I want to try other things first, to see if it helps.” This really begs the question, when is the right time? How much anxiety is acceptable before we take action, and how do we gauge when it’s the right time?





As a sufferer myself, I have to say that any level of anxiety is really difficult to cope with, and is often quite debilitating. It is tiring, physically and mentally, affecting appetite, concentration, mood, and every aspect of life. Other symptoms include not wanting any social interaction, not feeling able to cope with things that normally don’t present a problem, and constantly feeling nervous and on edge. It is quite isolating because, on the whole, nobody else would guess that there is anything wrong, as it is so internalised. Most would probably only notice that something is wrong when we can no longer function at work, we have to cancel plans, or we struggle to eat, and so on.


With all this in mind, by the time that we actually notice anxious behaviours from our dogs, they will already be struggling considerably. We know that anxiety results in very similar brain chemistry in both dogs and humans, so it is safe to assume that the condition is at least as distressing for them as it is for us, if not more so. Dogs do not have the benefit of talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. They cannot reason and rationalise how they feel, and they often have very little opportunity to make choices to help them feel in control.





MEDICATION VERSUS "NATURAL PRODUCTS"


Medication versus "natural products" to treat canine anxiety is something which often crops up in online dog forums. CBD is frequently recommended amongst guardians and trainers, with the benefits often being both hotly supported and debated. Many swear by its use; some attest that they saw improvement and that it really helped their dog, whilst others state that there were no visible benefits. Some don't quite feel comfortable with the idea of medicating their dog, preferring to pursue other avenues first, such as CBD products, supplements, remedies, and other "natural" treatments available over the counter. It is also not uncommon to come across people who are fervently against giving their dog any kind of anxiolytic medications.


In the blog linked below, I discuss this topic further, and investigate whether there is any scientific evidence to support the use of CBD products for the treatment of anxiety in dogs:




Unfortunately, there is still much misunderstanding surrounding mental health difficulties in both people and canines, as well as the way in which anxiolytic medications work. There is a huge stigma against medication, and while we try supplements and over-the-counter remedies which may or may not work, it delays having our dogs properly assessed and treated, and they continue to struggle. Anxiety which is left untreated can lead to chronic stress, which impacts the digestive and immune systems. It can cause elevated blood pressure, cognitive dysfunction, and it will shorten the life span of the dog. Despite what we know about the consequences of not adequately addressing anxiety, still the stigma persists, and medication is often viewed as a last resort, rather than a first line of defence.


Medications are sometimes thought of as a stand-alone treatment, but anxiolytics are very much intended to support training, not to replace it. Medication is often needed to help a dog reach a baseline which will facilitate learning because they are too fearful, stressed or anxious for training alone to be sufficient. Medication, management, and training all play an integral part in behaviour modification. Sadly, some believe that anxiety medications will drug their dog, making them zombie-like and causing changes to their personality, but this just isn’t true. Often, being anxious is so physically and mentally taxing on the dog that, when they are given some relief in the form of medication, they are finally able to relax and sleep properly.






THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE


Whilst medications are, in fact, drugs, they have a specific pharmaceutical purpose, which is to prevent, alleviate, or cure symptoms.


“Drugs can have either a negative or positive impact. All medicines are drugs, whereas not all drugs are medicines. “


Language does have an impact on perception, so it is important to realise and understand the distinction between drugs and prescription medication. when the term "drug" is used, it tends to give the impression of an experimental substance, which could have either a negative or positive outcome, and which has not undergone thorough testing, research, and regulation. There are quite a few medications which are used for treating both humans and animals, which really is no surprise, when considering the similarities in our brain chemistry.


As for the belief that our dogs will become furry zombies...

Anxiolytic medications function by targeting specific neurotransmitters, without impacting the dog’s personality or perception in any way, regardless of misguided, stigmatised beliefs. Granted, some do have a sedative effect, for example, those used to treat phobias of thunderstorms, fireworks, and veterinary visits, but this is certainly not the case for all anxiolytics. I can safely say that if this were true, I certainly would not be able to function sufficiently to write this blog, and instead, would be slumped over my laptop whenever I attempted to write something.



THE BLAME GAME


Another aspect I find difficult to come to terms with is the amount of owner blaming and shaming which goes on. This perspective is both unhelpful, and really unfair. Anxiety is hugely complex, and occurs for many different reasons. Rather than causing/making their dogs' anxiety worse, I would argue that those who suffer with anxiety, myself included, are often better placed to care for anxious dogs because we can empathise, understand what they might be feeling, and protect them from stressors. I have anxiety, yet my dogs are not anxious. I work hard to ensure that they feel safe, I recognise their earliest signs of stress, and I don’t expose them to situations that they will not cope well with.


We know that dogs can be impacted by fear, stress and anxiety even before they are born, from environmental factors affecting the mother, as well as genetically. Those prenatal experiences and first few months of life are instrumental in shaping who the dog becomes; it certainly isn’t simply a case of anxious guardian, anxious pet. Anxiety can develop at any stage of life. It might be age-related, or pain-related, separation related, or inherited. It is a complicated topic, which is not helped by blaming the guardians.




THE DAMAGE CAUSED BY SOCIAL STIGMA


As anyone who has experienced it will know, anxiety is a debilitating condition which has serious mental and physical health implications. Withholding medication due to personal beliefs is a huge welfare issue, and a failure to meet the five freedoms. By under-estimating the impact of anxiety, it does a real disservice to both people and their pets who suffer. I also want to emphasise that Anxiety is a clinical disorder, which manifests for a variety of reasons . We are talking about being constantly on high alert, unable to relax, and always anticipating danger. Triggers not only occur in the environment, but anxiety is also generated internally, creating a negative feedback loop which keeps us in a constant state of stress, as is the case with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Other disorders include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Separation Anxiety, phobias such as extreme sound sensitivity, which is often pain-related, and cognitive dysfunction.


Medication is often an essential first step in order to provide some relief for the dog, and while management of triggers is always important in order to minimise stressors, it is grossly unfair to suggest that owners are to blame when their dogs are anxious. Medications can literally be life-saving, and nobody should be made to feel ashamed for having to use them for themselves or for their dogs. Welfare needs to be our first priority, and we should not have to fight against misinformation, misconceptions, misguided beliefs and social stigma in order to live more comfortably. A more thoughtful and empathetic approach to others would make a world of difference.






For articles on the science of stress and how to identify the signs, check out the following blogs:




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