We’ve all seen the Border Collie that zooms through an agility course with ease, or the excited Labrador chasing a ball. But when does lots of energy become too much? Why is my dog hyperactive? Can hyperactivity be a cause for concern? Learn more about hyperactivity in dogs, and what you can do to help.
How To Tell If Your Dog Is Hyperactive?
Hyperactivity is a high level of physical activity beyond the normal. It can lead to strange behaviors, such as stereotypy, or repetitive motion. In addition, hyperactive dogs may be constantly seeking out new stimulation, or not tire out as quickly after walks or play. A hyperactive dog may also have a decreased attention span. They may get bored quickly or not focus on tasks or commands. Lastly, a hyperactive dog may show stressed behaviors, such as destructive chewing, howling, or excessive barking.
How Is Hyperactivity Different From High-Energy?
Some dogs are naturally energetic. Many breeds, such as herding and terrier breeds, tend to have a higher energy threshold due to their historic uses. Other breeds, such as retrievers and hunting dogs, may use more energy in endurance. However, any dog can be high-energy. Dogs that are high energy also tend to have higher nutritional needs, requiring higher protein or carbohydrate meals to keep weight on.
High energy is not hyperactivity. High-energy dogs will tire out over time, they just may be more active longer than a small breed dog or couch potato. Hyperactivity is also not limited to high-energy breeds. A dog that is bored, stressed, or upset can become hyperactive no matter their size or shape.
Signs of an Emergency
While not exclusive to hyperactivity, there are a few signs that should be seen by your vet or an emergency clinic. If your dog seems in severe distress, is panting heavily, pacing, hunching, or acting painful, this can indicate an injury or other underlying issue beyond hyperactivity. Gums that turn blue or pale are a sign of poor blood circulation, and not an energy issue. Dogs may also accidentally injure themselves with destructive chewing, leading to mouth, paw, or limb injuries that should be treated right away.
Dog Hyperactivity — Causes
Here are some of the most common causes of hyperactivity in dogs, and what to do:
Normal Activity and Excitement
What you may think is hyperactivity could just be normal activity and excitement for your dog. Many breeds are naturally more active and require a larger amount of stimulation and exercise to tire them out. Dogs such as huskies are endurance breeds that may need several 1-2 hours walks per day, versus a spaniel that can get by with one. Border Collies and other herding breeds need to exercise their brains daily with puzzle toys, actual herding, or other stimulating activities.
It’s also normal for your dog to be excited when you first come home — they’re happy to see you! Other exciting times can include meals, getting ready for a walk, or interacting with new people and pets. Healthy dogs will be curious and excited during these times. They’ll be eager to interact and may hop around, vocalize, or want to be close to you while they do.
Often, dogs that are just naturally active and excited will try to encourage owners to play or walk longer, or may exhibit stress behaviors such as chewing, barking, or pacing if understimulated. If you notice your dog just seems to want to play a little longer or walk a little more, they may just be more energetic. Luckily, high-energy dogs have a variety of options. Enrolling in programs such as flyball or agility, changing up walking paths, or including puzzle toys when you can’t interact can all help.
Anxiety and Stress
A non-medical cause behind hyperactivity can be anxiety or stress. Changes in your daily routine can be a trigger. Other causes can include under or overstimulation, as well as new people or pets in the home. Moving to a new location can also lead to an increase in anxiety. If your dog is stressed or anxious, you may notice hyperactive behaviors.
Your dog may pace back and forth in one room. They may whine or vocalize more often. Anxious dogs may try to diffuse their nervous energy with problematic chewing of household objects. They may also be unusually clingy; looking as if they want more attention or walks than usual.
A good first step is a trip to your vet to rule out any health issues that could be causing these behaviors. Pain and underlying illnesses, as well as changes to vision or hearing can lead to confusion and stress. If your dog checks out healthy, looking for stress and anxiety triggers is the next step. Try to identify changes in you or your dog’s routine, or things in your environment that can be causing stress. Sometimes, something as small as a mouse in the walls or road construction a block over can be enough to cause a problem.
Getting your dog back into a routine is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. Adding in stimulation for dogs that resort to vocalizing or chewing, such as puzzle toys that require focus, can help direct those energies. For overstimulated dogs, providing a quiet place to escape and rest can help decrease anxious behavior. If at-home remedies don’t help, a consultation with your vet or a veterinary behaviorist is best. They can combine medications and tailored training plans to help.
A dog that is bored, or understimulated, may also be a dog that appears hyperactive. Rather than an underlying health or behavioral issue, understimulated dogs simply need more to do.
When your dog is bored, you may notice a variety of behaviors. Your dog may encourage you to try to play by bringing you toys. They may race around the house or have “zoomies” to get out energy. During walks, your dog may pull to sniff more items. And lastly, a bored dog may become a destructive dog; finding their own things to do by chewing on household items or getting into the trash.
As with any behavior change, a vet visit is a good first step to check for any underlying health issues. From there, addressing the cause of your dog’s understimulation is best. Are your walks too short or too few? Does your dog have enough toys appropriate to their play style? Are you challenging their minds along with their bodies? Like high-energy dogs, enrolling in programs such as agility or flyball may be a great way to get out physical energy. For dogs that need mental stimulation, scent training is a great way to exercise the brain.
Seek out interactive toys as well as toys that your dog can play with independently. Kongs and rubber chews stuffed with treats can provide a fun challenge as your dog tries to get them out. Laser pointers and target sticks can help direct your dog to a position during training, burning excess energy. Clicker training and other training programs can also help your dog focus and increase concentration.
Other Behavioral Issues
Anxiety, stress, and understimulation are not the only behavioral issues that may result in hyperactivity in dogs. However, they do share a lot of overlap. Every dog responds differently, and a dog that is too stimulated, fearful, or undersocialized may appear to be hyperactive. In addition to hyperactive behaviors such as lack of focus, excessive energy, vocalizing, or running around, you may see more specific signs.
An overstimulated dog may become hyperfocused on an object such as another person or animal. Their pupils may dilate, and they may growl or hackle. Fearful dogs may try to avoid the situation by running away with a hunched body or tucked tail. They may also growl or focus on the object of their fear if they can’t get away from it. Dogs that are undersocialized may not know how to react appropriately, either getting too excited or too focused in the situation, or trying to avoid it by running away.
The best first step is to get your dog away from the situation that is causing the change in behavior, especially if your dog seems uncomfortable or is showing signs of fear or aggression. From there, speaking with a veterinary behaviorist or local dog trainer is best. They can work with you to identify the cause of your dog’s hyperactive or strange behavior.
Treatment usually consists of training regimens specific to your dog’s needs. For overstimulated or undersocialized dogs, BAT, or behavioral adjustment training is the most-used practice. This involves slowly acclimating your dog to the stimulus by carefully increasing the threshold of the stimulus over time while praising and rewarding your dog for calm, relaxed behavior. If it becomes too much, the stimulus is reduced and training resumes from there. Other positive reinforcement training, as well as medication when needed, can help.
As mentioned previously, some breeds are naturally more active than others. Historically, many breeds of dog were working dogs. They performed various jobs, ranging from cart pulling, to herding animals, to chasing off predators. These dogs needed to be able to remain active for long stretches. They also needed to be able to quickly understand what their humans wanted, or calculate how to move large herds of animals into different locations. As working dogs become less needed, Border Collies that were out on the fields may instead spend their days herding blankets on the couch.
However, these breeds still have those working instincts, which can lead to hyperactive behaviors, especially when understimulated. A Border Collie may not do very well in an apartment without any other activities. A Beagle may repeatedly escape to chase scents with their nose. Great Pyrenees may not enjoy remaining cooped up indoors all day.
As with other high-energy dogs, hyperactivity in these breeds can be directed toward constructive activities. Border Collies often excel at activities such as flyball or agility that challenge their natural instincts. Beagles and other scent hounds may enjoy search and rescue or scent training. Finding large fields to play in or hiking outdoors can help stimulate a large breed dog’s natural exploration tendencies. With the right balance of activity suited to your dog’s needs, you can easily indulge their breed traits without leading to destructive behavior.
While behavioral issues are a major cause of hyperactivity, there are some medical conditions, namely those affecting the nervous system and brain, that can cause problems. When thinking of seizures, the idea of a giant grand mal seizure with full-body twitching and loss of consciousness may come to mind. However, seizures can come with all sorts of signs and symptoms. A seizure may be a short lapse in your dog’s attention as they seem to stare off in space. Or, they may twitch only in one limb rather than their entire body.
Sometimes, seizures can be mistaken for hyperactivity. If your dog seemingly loses focus at random, or jerks or moves about rapidly suddenly, a vet visit is best. Seizures can be hard to diagnose, but your veterinarian can perform several tests. A general exam and history are useful in determining the frequency and timing of seizures. From there, bloodwork, urinalysis, and EKGs can be used to check for underlying health issues that can lead to seizures. More specific tests, such as CT scans or MRIs may also be recommended if the cause is not apparent.
Treatment varies depending on the severity of the seizures. If they are infrequent, your vet may recommend keeping an eye on your dog without further treatment. For more frequent or severe seizures, medications such as phenobarbital or potassium bromide may be used. Often, these medications will need to be adjusted or changed until the correct dosage is found that balances normal activity with seizure prevention.
Other Nervous System and Neurologic Disorders
Damage to the nervous system can lead to hyperactive-like behaviors in dogs. This damage can be from a variety of causes, such as inner ear infections leading to loss of balance or concentration, tumors on the spinal cord, or damage to the nerves. Dogs with nervous system or neurologic issues may appear “off”. They may have limbs that twitch repeatedly or stick out at odd angles, unable to move them into a normal position.
Dogs with spinal cord injuries may appear to “swim” while laying down, with all of their limbs spread out. Brain-related issues may cause your dog’s pupils to dilate, or may lead to a lack of focus. Other symptoms include gait issues, such as clumsiness or exaggerated movement, changes in behavior, or changes in eating, drinking, and bowel habits.
A thorough workup from your vet is best when a nerve or neurologic issue is suspected. Your vet will first take a history to determine if any injuries could be causing problems. From there, bloodwork, X-rays, ultrasound, and neurologic testing can be performed. Your vet may look into your dog’s eyes for dilation or constriction. Neurological tests can be perfomed by checking reflexes as well as placing your dog’s feet in odd positions to check proprioception. X-rays can identify breaks in the spine as well as swelling that could be putting pressure on the nerves.
Treatment is wildly variable depending on the cause. It can range from conservative options, such as oral medications to reduce pain and inflammation along with strict bed rest, to more specific treatments. Dogs with tumors may need surgery to remove them. Physical therapy can help with regaining motion while the body heals. In severe cases where the nerves are too damaged, assistive aids like wheelchairs can help a dog regain mobility.
Poisoning and Toxicity
Ingestions of poisons and other toxic substances can lead to symptoms that mimic hyperactivity. These can include your dog losing focus or being unable to concentrate, acting excessively energetic, or twitching or moving strangely. Dogs that have gotten into something toxic can have other acute symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea, excessive drooling, or changes in appetite. In more serious cases, your dog may also lose consciousness or have a seizure.
If you suspect your dog has ingested poison or another toxin, seek emergency care immediately. The sooner you can get your dog in for care, the better their chances for surviving the emergency. Your vet will first take a history to determine what was ingested. From there, blood work, drug tests, urine samples, and other diagnostic tools can be used to determine the severity of the toxicity.
Treatment depends on the item causing symptoms. Often, IV fluids and IV medications are used to help flush the body of toxins while protecting the liver and kidneys from damage. Activated charcoal can be used if the item was recently ingested to help encourage vomiting up any remaining materials and reduce their absorption in the GI tract. Long term, your vet may also send home medications such as Vitamin K to help with blood clotting in the case of rat poisons. Subcutaneous fluids and oral medications can also be used at home to treat acute liver and kidney issues.
Hyperactivity can be concerning, but with the right stimulation, exercise, and healthcare, it is treatable. As with any change in behavior or with new symptoms, a vet visit is best, especially if your dog seems in distress. From there, you can try different training techniques and treatments to help your dog feel better.