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It’s Possible to Manage Extreme Anxiety in Dogs

We know stress negatively impacts our general health and can lead to a weakened immune system and other related illnesses. Animals and people do better and feel better when they are able to let go of fear and anxiety.

Animals are all individuals and handle environments differently. They may be away from their families, have experienced trauma, or are just overwhelmed. My approach to veterinary medicine is focused on finding treatments that work for the individual.

Take Viggo, for example. He came to us during the Carr Fires in July. Who knows what his life was like before coming to the East Bay SPCA. He had been in the animal shelter near the fire and then was transported to Oakland in a van with other nervous and stressed animals. Viggo panicked on leash, rolling, flailing, and pulling away. We would find him hiding in his kennel watching us when we went in to interact. The truth of the matter was that Viggo didn’t feel safe.

Successful treatment involves developing goals, finding the best medication, and behavior modification plans to move toward those goals and checking in frequently with the patient. We wanted to decrease Viggo’s stress levels enough that he could respond to us if he wanted. It’s hard for an animal to trust when it is convinced danger is around the corner. We measured success through his interactions with us. Would he come out to say hello, take a treat or even spend time with us? Happily, he responded.

As a medical team, we supported our behavior and training teams’ efforts with medications to minimize his anxiety. Viggo needed a combination of anti-anxiety medication (Alprazolam), an antidepressant (Trazodone),which helps with anxious dogs, and Gabapentin (a sedative). These medications helped Viggo come out of his shell enough to relate to us and begin learning key behaviors. We focused on using his favorite treats (Vienna sausages), letting him come to us, and using minimal restraint so he didn’t feel pressured. Over time, he tolerated a leash and was able to walk outside. My heart sang the first time I saw Viggo gamboling around the yard playing with other dogs.

Viggo went home with a wonderful family who will love him, quirks and all. Without medication and behavior modification, he would have pulled further away, unable to interact with people and been miserable. There is a good chance he would have developed aggressive or destructive behaviors preventing him from being adopted at all. I am grateful to be part of a team that opens doors to animals like Viggo.

Gwen Gadd, D.V.M., is staff veterinarian at the East Bay SPCA. She is a card carrying, non-skiing Colorado native who decided to experience life in the Bay area. She graduated with her degree in veterinary medicine from Colorado State University in 1996. She enjoys all aspects of veterinary medicine and has treated everything from stray chickens and hedgehogs as well as the more conventional dogs and cats. On a personal level, Gwen loves getting lost with her dog Lucy, photography, short-story writing, and learning ASL.

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Main article photo by: Photo courtesy East Bay SPCA