The Nervous Itch: How do I know it is Anxiety?

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There is more and more talk in our world about the “dark side” of psychology.  By this, I am referring to psychological terms that are being thrown around to define a person’s state-of-mind, whether it be in a condensed time scale, such as the term “anxious”, or in a longer time scale, such as chronic depression. Diagnosis of these conditions in humans takes time, ensuring that particular criteria are met to prevent misdiagnosis.  However, misdiagnosis does occur, especially when unrelated diseases and conditions display similar symptoms.  The same is true in the world of canines.

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as: An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes, like increased blood pressure (American Psychological Association, 2014).  The term anxiety is actually a blanket term for a large subset of mental behaviors and disorders, and, in humans, can range from social-related phobias, to obsessive-compulsive disorders, to separation anxiety (Mayo Clinic, 2014).

As in humans, canines will experience occasional anxiety as a part of normal life, but it is when these detrimental behaviours (e.g. irrational fear, excessive worry, destructive behaviours) begin to repeat and impact the quality of life of both canine and caregiver, that an intervention maybe needed. If you are feeling that your dog’s behavior seems abnormal or detrimental, it is best to respond proactively and contact your behaviour consultant or vet. However, it is important to analyze the frequency of these specific behaviours against your dog’s normal behavioral repertoire. You and a professional need to work together to determine as many of the contributing factors involved with the behaviour before he/she should be deemed as having an “anxiety issue.”

For example, I hear of behaviours such as destroying furniture, having inappropriate bowel movements, and excessive barking being linked with separation anxiety.  However, furniture chewing (a destructive behaviour) could also be related to a build-up of unspent energy. Excessive barking can be as simple as a lack of training, and abnormal bowel activity a health-related issue (e.g. infection).

It is therefore important that canine caregivers seek the assistance of a behavioral specialist to help determine what factors (e.g. lifestyle choices, frequency of the behavior, time of day, etc.) are contributing to (what is being thought of as) an anxiety-related issue and to ensure proper diagnosis.  In many cases a few changes to a dog’s lifestyle are all that may be needed for them to return back to their “normal” canine selves.  If in doubt, call your Behavioural Consultant, they are there to help!  And remember, always set your canine up for success!! Be mindful of your dog’s daily schedule, habits and preferences, remove temptations for negative behaviours, and ensure a happy home!

American Psychological Association (APA) (2013). Anxiety Definition.  Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/.  Accessed on Feb. 10, 2014.

Mayo Clinic (2014).  Diseases and Conditions: Anxiety.  Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/basics/definition/con-20026282.  Accessed on Feb. 10, 2014.

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