Occurring suddenly, for no apparent reason, a panic attack can strike anyone at any time. This state of heightened anxiety in humans is brought about by acute stress and accompanied by rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, shaking, dizziness, nausea, and other debilitating symptoms. And when a panic attack occurs more than once, it's a hallmark sign of panic disorder.
It's not surprising then, that dogs, companions to humans in a close symbiotic relationship for tens of thousands of years, would suffer from some of the same conditions as humans, including panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and other anxiety, emotional, and mental disorders.
Panic and anxiety play a part in survival
Of course, anxiety and panic are a necessary part of humans' and animals' survival toolbox, and a vital defense mechanism designed to help us respond to imminent danger. Being in a state of panic creates adrenaline, or epinephrine, the "fight or flight" hormone and releases it into the bloodstream. This creates temporary super-strength, razor-sharp mental focus, and a decrease of the body's ability to feel pain; enabling escape from danger or, alternatively, to fight for our lives.
The problem is that when no danger actually threatens, the adrenaline released into the system builds up since it's not used for running away or fighting, and causes the characteristic signs of a panic attack.
In people, the terms "panic attacks" and "anxiety attacks" are often used interchangeably, but although they are similar, they are not actually the same. In dogs, however, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and other anxiety disorders are usually considered together because dogs can't articulate what they're feeling to distinguish the condition, and the behaviors all stem from stress of some kind in various degrees. And anxiety is a response to fear and agitation, or apprehension when the animal anticipates a threat or fearful situation, explains Merck Veterinary Manual.
Symptoms of a panic attack and signs of anxiety in your dog
Panic attacks are traumatic enough for humans to go through, so imagine how dogs feel during an episode in which they have no frame of reference — in other words, they don't what's happening, and they don't have the ability to express their fears like people can. This causes dogs to act out in a variety of uncharacteristic ways, which can include some pretty unnerving behaviors, as follows:
- Body language such as ears back and tail tucked under with pacing behavior
- Rapid breathing
- Fast heart rate
- Pupils are dilated
- Loss of appetite
- Shaking or trembling
- Excessive licking
- Chewing on skin and/or fur
- Whining, howling, and barking excessively
- Marked, extreme aggression including growling and biting, or any threatening behavior or harmful attacks. This occurs in dogs that are easily aroused with their decision-making affected by their physiologic state induced by adrenalin (fight or flight)
- Trying to climb on you or relentlessly licking you
- Exaggerated digging and scratching behaviors
- Trying to escape or run away, which in addition to you observing the behavior first-hand, is evidenced by scratches on doors and damaged fencing in the yard
- Out-of-character urinating or defecating indoors
Can your dog feel your anxiety?
Emotionally reactive and naturally anxious people may have anxious dogs, says a June 2019 study in the journal Scientific Reports. In the study, a research team in Sweden recruited 58 dog-owner pairs including 33 Shetland sheepdogs and 25 border collies. The owners submitted questionnaires about their own personality traits and mental health, as well as that of their dogs.
Although the stress hormone cortisol spikes during dangerous situations along with the release of adrenaline, the long-term effect of too much cortisol is measured in slow-growing hair and fur. The compelling results indicate that dogs' and their humans' stress levels are synchronized.
It turns out that pet parents with a high amount of cortisol in their hair also had a dog with a similarly high level of cortisol, a clear indication that pet parents do indeed have a lot to do with their dog's level of stress, which can lead to anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and other anxiety and emotional disorders in your dog.
As any pet parent of a dog is well aware, our dogs are constantly watching us, picking up cues for behavior, to make sure we're present, to protect us, and just because they adore us. From their astute observation of us, dogs pick up subtle and not-so-subtle hints that we're experiencing anxiety. How? Leave it to dogs; they can discriminate even a subtle change in our body odor to more obvious visual cues like changes in our behaviors including pacing, nail biting, and irritability.
Interestingly, in contrast, anxious dogs do not create nervous or anxious owners, probably because, unlike our dogs, we have a life outside of the relationship with our dogs, yet to our dogs, we are their whole world.
How to help your dog during a panic attack
If your dog is in the midst of a panic attack, here are some of the ways you can alleviate his discomfort, soothe, and relax him:
- Stay calm, because your calm and gentle voice will let your dog know you're in charge and he can relax
- If your dog is hiding under the bed during a panic attack, let him remain there, or in any other quiet spot he has chosen to wait out the attack. If his crate is his "safe place," then put him in his crate until the attack passes
- You can try to divert your dog's attention by engaging him in a favorite game or giving him high-grade treats.
- If the panic attack occurs on a walk outside, he may try to bolt so use a harness rather than a collar for dogs with anxiety issues or a history of panic attacks
- Wrap him in a Thundershirt or an old T-shirt, towel, or ace bandages; anything that is snug-fitting around his chest and abdomen will suffice. The point is to apply any material that hugs your dog's body slightly and puts pressure on the chest, back, and sides leading to a calming effect. With an 80% success rate, the innovative product Thundershirt helps millions of dogs suffering from panic and anxiety issues, according to their website.
Diagnosis of panic attacks in your dog
Panic attacks and anxiety disorders are complex. Common triggers like age (associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS), separation (dogs cannot find comfort when they're alone), and fear (loud noises, strange people or animals, visual stimuli like hats or umbrellas, new or strange environments, and certain situations) are easily recognized, while others are not, and can never be eliminated or fully prevented.
Remember to always be patient with your dog, and never punish or scold him for these anxiety-induced behaviors. Consult with your veterinarian so you can work together for a successful outcome to either decrease or control the anxiety behaviors.
Treatment of panic attacks in your dog
If your dog has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, through a combination of training, preventive strategies, and in some cases, prescribed medications, it can be successfully controlled.
Like people, dogs can have panic attacks. While panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and other anxiety disorders can be managed through training, preventive strategies, and sometimes prescribed medications, it's important to know the triggers that cause a panic attack, how to identify when your dog is suffering a panic or anxiety attack, and to learn how to manage your dog's panic attacks and overall anxiety issues to bring her to a calm state.
- Medical News Today: What to Know About Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
- Wag Walking: Panic Attacks
- Medical News Today: What Happens When You Get an Adrenaline Rush?
- National Geographic: If You’re Chronically Stressed, Your Dog Could Be Too
- Nature: Long-Term Stress Levels Are Synchronized in Dogs and Their Oners
- Bustle: Dog Anxiety Symptoms Include These Six Unexpected Things
- My San Antonio: Helping Dogs With Anxiety Disorder
- Sit Stay: Anxiety in Dogs: How to Spot and Help it
- AKC: Treating Dog Anxiety
- Merck Veterinary Manual: Behavioral Problems of Dogs