Dealing with Pet Anxiety
By Julaine Hunter, DVM
Pet anxiety is one of the most common behavioral complaints brought to us at LazyPaw Animal Hospitals. Pets experience anxiety just like people, except sometimes the cause can be harder to figure out. If not properly managed, pet anxiety can cause long term emotional and physical problems for both pets and their owners, so it’s important to get to the bottom of your pet’s nervousness to help them feel at ease.
Know the symptoms.
Anxiety doesn’t always manifest itself in obvious ways. Constantly barking, obsessively tail chasing, compulsively chewing, displaying signs of aggression toward people or other dogs and/or ongoing inappropriate elimination despite proper training can be the result of anxiety issues. Cats can display a wide range of behaviors: hiding more than normal, greeting owners exuberantly, following owners from room to room, pottying outside the litter box, or even sometimes vomiting. Punishing these behaviors doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, and therefore won’t fix it.
What’s causing the issue?
Before you can help your pet overcome his fears, you need to understand determine the source of his anxiety. Common causes are separation, noise, travel, confinement, or changes in routine. Pets can develop anxiety after emotional or physical trauma: loud noises as commonly occur with thunderstorms or fireworks, confinement, long term kenneling et cetera. If you start paying attention and try to see the world as your pet does, it probably won’t take long to figure out what the root of the problem is.
If it’s noise, either try to stop it or desensitize your pet to it.
Sometimes we have control over the noise in our homes (Ex: movies and video games), but sometimes outside noises like lawnmowers, fire engines, or fireworks are outside of our control. If you can’t moderate loud noises outside your home, start getting your pet more used to them. Find a recording of a similar noise on your computer or purchase an MP3 or CD of it and play it quietly for your pet. Training CD’s are also available online such as http://throughadogsear.com and http://www.soundtherapy4pets.co.uk . Over the course of a few days to weeks to months, each dog is an individual and learns at his/her own pace, gradually increase the volume. You can try giving small treats or only play these sounds when your pet is having a positive experience such as brushing, during a play session or at meal times.
If your pet has separation anxiety, avoid making theatrical exits and entrances as your pet will cope better if you are low key and unemotional during departure and arrival. Leaving your pet with an old t-shirt you have recently worn or other item containing your scent will comfort some pets during their owner’s absence. You can also start using a specific word or phrase every time you leave that will signify you will be back. Initially make your absences short. Gradually increase the duration of your absence. This method is a great way to mitigate and to train pets to be alone. Crate training early on in a puppy’s life can go a long way to preventing separation anxiety down the road. Even owners who work from home should teach their pets how to be alone for periods of time. Travel, hospitalization or other reasons can occur suddenly. Pets never taught how to be alone cannot “self soothe.” Failing to train pets to be alone for some part of their day is a disservice.
Exercise is a magic stress reliever.
Helping your pet release nervous energy in a positive way—through exercise—is one of the best things you can do to help them. Throw the ball, play tag in the yard, or go for a long walk. The more your pet can process their anxiety through positive motion, the better. To see a video example of a dog coping with anxiety when they’re moving, check out this clip from Victoria Stilwell’s “It’s Me or the Dog.”
Seek professional advice.
Anxiety is complicated in humans, and it is also complicated in animals. If you try a few solutions at home and they don’t seem to help, consult your veterinarian for professional advice. At LazyPaw Animal Hospitals, many of our veterinary staff members as well as our veterinarians are trained in behavioral assessment and can offer specific behavioral advice for a myriad of problems. In rare instances our clinicians will prescribe medication to alleviate anxiety while your pet is undergoing concurrent desensitization training. These can readily be filled at the time of your appointment or through our on-line pet pharmacy
Anxiety cases can be difficult to resolve, but with some patience, understanding, and commitment to training, you can help your pet feel more at ease. Give us a call. We can help. You only want the best for your pet. So do we.