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Panic Disorders in Dogs – The Ghosts of Traumas Past

Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 2:31:03 PM EST by Cam Day

Panic disorders in dogs

The 'ghosts of traumas past'

In the last two weeks I have seen some interesting panic disorders in dogs, all of which have had the theme of ‘back yard scary ghosts’.

What is a panic disorder?

A panic disorder is the ugly parent of an anxiety disorder and is easily recognised. (More information)

Panicking dogs show severe signs of distress and almost always include:-

  • hyperventilation
  • trembling
  • excessive salivation
  • hypervigilance and hyperactivity
  • dilated pupils
  • posturing signals of ears being tucked back, tail tucked  and tenseness of facial musculature.

If the owners are present, the dogs usually demonstrate profound comfort seeking (which is different from attention seeking) usually by

  • climbing onto the owner’s lap
  • nuzzling
  • distressed vocalising
  • frantic clawing of the owners.

If the owners are absent, the dogs will often attempt to escape from the area they are confined in (usually the garden or backyard) or will try to ‘inscape’ into the home. The damage to fences or to back doors can be immense.

This is an attempt to flee from the ‘ghost’ causing the trauma.

But it’s the damage the dogs do to themselves that distresses the owners.

Sometimes the ‘ghostly cause’ is obvious – thunderstorms and firework events are common traumas. However, in many cases the cause is not at all obvious and impossible to determine.

The latter we call ‘back yard panic disorders’ because we don’t know the ghost that’s causing the problem.

Here is an interesting case study  that will help if your dog is showing signs of panic.

Molly - back yard panic disorder of unknown originstaffordshireterriers

Molly is a 5 year old purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier living on an acreage property with another male Staffordshire Bull Terrier of the same age. The owners are retired and mostly home.

The dogs are allowed to free-roam the property at night via an always-open dog door.

Molly’s panic is nocturnal only starting at about 1am.

During this time she comes into the owner’s bedroom and practices extensive comfort-seeking with clawing of the owners to wake them up. At such times she is hyperventilating, hypervigilant and inconsolable.

This behaviour started suddenly, three weeks before the consultation.  For years previously she has not demonstrated this behavioural problem. The panic did not occur during the day and was not shown by her in-contact Staffordshire Terrier.

So, what was the cause?

Simply put, we don’t know.

The features are that Molly is allowed garden access during the night, the panic disorder is only expressed at night and it started suddenly rather than being of slow and gradual onset.

So a ‘ghost of the night’ is affecting the dog and it appeared to be of a traumatic origin.

While there could be many causes,  our thoughts were mostly centred around interactions with nocturnal wildlife and particularly snakes.  Carpet pythons were known to be present.

A diagnosis of a post-traumatic panic disorder was made.


In the absence of a defined cause, the dogs were prevented from accessing the garden at night to determine if the ‘ghost of the night’ was a ‘garden ghost’ or an ‘inside the house ghost’.

The dog was already being treated with routine doses of two different anti-anxiety medications.

An Adaptil diffuser was added to the bedroom to provide additional comfort.

The owners were asked to ring to report progress in 7 days and at 14 days.

Follow up

At 7 days, the owners reported a complete cessation of the nocturnal panic which occurred from the first night of confinement.  Caming medication was being used nightly.

Because we were not convinced the nightly calmative was needed, that was stopped at this time. The second anti-anxiety medication was continued.

At 14 days the owner reported the panic disorder was eliminated apart from one minor issue of attention seeking on one night which was easily diverted.

A plan was implemented to review the need for the second anti-anxiety medication and the Adaptil in eight weeks but in the interim the owners were planning to test some garden access at night to see if the problem re-occurred with that change.


For this case the cause of the trauma is unknown. The concept of testing if the trauma was garden-related or ‘inside-the-house’ related was considered important.

If the panic had continued with night-time in-house confinement, further investigations would be needed to determine if there was a cause. Common ‘inside the house’ causes are high-pitched burglar alarms and smoke alarms and also home invasions. However none of those seemed to be the cause in this case.

We therefore concluded the trauma was an unknown event that occurred in the garden only.

We have a similar case we have just started working with involving a Staffordshire Terrier cross with panic-related escape behaviour. It is likely this dog is suffering repeated bite wounds from backyard insects. We are three weeks into the remedy and the dogs is remarkably better - likley the problem has now resolved. The remedy was as simple as using insect repellant.

More information

Anxiety disorders in dogs
Noise phobias in dogs
Escaping behaviour
Separation Anxiety
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