Thursday, October 7, 2010
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder? (And Does Maisy Have It?)
Maisy has never been a “normal” dog. Most of my pictures of her as a puppy have motion blur, and not just because I have a cheap point-and-shoot. She just never slept. At three months, she became overly upset at the appearance of a soda can in the bathroom. And when she took her CGC test at eight months, the evaluator wrote on the form, “seems a little nervous.”
“Little” was an understatement. Although Maisy is generally a very outgoing and curious dog, she is also very cautious and worried about new experiences. I know this sounds contradictory, but to a certain degree, I think this is normal for many reactive dogs- they feel conflicted about what’s going on around them, and react accordingly. But Maisy sometimes seems even more conflicted about things. For a long time, I simply thought she was “quirky,” but when a friend shared a handout on Generalized Anxiety Disorder with me, I began to think differently.
So, what is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)? It is when a dog consistently overreacts to things, is more active than would be seen in a normal dog, and is excessively vigilant to its surroundings. The key here is the extreme nature of the dog’s reactions; these reactions will be seen even when there isn’t a “truly provocative stimulus.” Further, there is rarely a pattern to the things that cause this overreaction. For example, if a dog overreacts only to thunderstorms, it may still be anxious, but it would not be diagnosed with GAD.
Dogs with GAD are typically wary of things or startle at things in a way that seems out of proportion with the actual stimulus. Even when a reaction seems to be justified, the reaction is still more intense than what would be expected. They are often very light sleepers who awaken easily. They may be destructive, but there’s no true pattern to their destructiveness. They might have some general reactivity to unfamiliar people or places. Physically, they may demonstrate regular vomiting, diarrhea, itchiness or rashes.
Does Maisy have GAD? Well… it sure sounds like her. Incredibly active? Check. Overreacts to things? Check. Vigilant about her environment? Check. She is definitely a light sleeper, and she certainly startles often. She had some of the physical symptoms as a puppy. But other things don’t fit the diagnosis. For example, she’s never been destructive. While Maisy has always demonstrated a lot of caution with new objects, she’s actually pretty friendly and interested in meeting most new dogs and people.
I don’t know if she actually meets the diagnostic criteria for GAD. GAD is considered a diagnosis of “last resort”- most anxiety can be categorized in some other way, such as separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia. Still, she is anxious in general, so in order to resolve this mystery, Maisy has an appointment next week with Dr. Duxbury, one of only 51 board-certified veterinary behaviorists in the US and Canada.
I am both excited and nervous about this appointment. Dogs with GAD do not easily learn to ignore the things that upset them, and as a result, medication is often needed. I don’t know if Maisy needs medication, but I’ll be honest: I think I am approaching the limits of my abilities. Maisy has improved incredibly in the year-and-a-half that I’ve been doing behavior modification with her, but she still seems so uncomfortable in her own skin sometimes. So, even though I’m not crazy about the idea of medications- I trend more holistic most of the time, after all- I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the kindest thing I can do for her.
(Note: the handout, and this post, is based on Dr. Karen Overall’s Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 2nd Ed..)