Steps to Identify and Ease Anxiety in Pets

Refrain from discipline. A critical aspect of dealing with anxiety-related behavior is to stay away from punishment. Avoid yelling and performing even seemingly benign gestures, such as shaking a finger and scolding your pet. Don’t use physical punishments, such as leash corrections or hitting. Fear and anxiety are emotions over which your pet doesn’t have much control. Scolding can frighten your pet, increase his anxiety and damage your relationship with him.

Refrain from consoling. Conversely, avoid soothing your anxious pet or giving your cat or dog attention when he is stressed. This can be difficult for any loving pet owner, but be aware that comforting will not always help. It may worsen the situation because the pet is rewarded for the behavior. Instead, try to distract your pet with a favorite activity, such as playing with a toy or doing tricks. Use an upbeat, happy tone of voice at all times, so you don’t further distress your pet.

Avoid the fearful stimulus. Some well-intentioned pet owners incorrectly believe that repeatedly exposing their pet to the fearful stimulus will help him get over his fear. The more likely result is that the pet’s fear of that specific stimulus will only worsen. Every time a pet feels fear or anxiety associated with a particular experience or place, his emotional state of fear or anxiety becomes more strongly associated with that experience or place. The longer the cycle of fear and anxiety continues, the more resistant the pet can become to change.

Be aware that you shouldn’t ignore behavior problems in the hope that they’ll get better over time. Most ­behavior problems left untreated worsen with time, and the sooner you seek qualified help from your veterinarian, the more likely you are to be able to help your pet.

Get Professional Advice

So, what can you do to help prevent the worsening of your pet’s fear or anxiety? Once you’ve identified a cause, try to avoid it until you can work with your veterinarian on reducing your pet's fear. If your pet is fearful or anxious when strangers enter your home, confine your pet to a place where he is comfortable and can’t see the strangers. Leave dogs with a chew bone or other long-lasting treat or toy. Provide pets a comfortable place to sleep. Remember, this isn’t intended to be punishment. It’s just a way to help keep your pet from suffering anxiety.

Avoiding the situations that cause your cat or dog fear isn’t always feasible, so rest assured that you do have options. Your first and best option is to discuss the issue with your veterinarian. Next, if your pet’s fear is limited to a few specific and predictable events, such as thunderstorms or car travel, your veterinarian can counsel you on how to gradually desensitize your pet to the fearful stimulus. In some cases, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help prevent your pet’s anxiety during these anticipated instances.

If your pet experiences anxiety and fear every day, don’t delay seeking help from your veterinarian. Pets suffering from ongoing fear or anxiety can react so severely that they cause serious injury to themselves or destruction to the environment around them. With these more frequent anxiety- or fear-related problems, your veterinarian will most likely recommend a behavior modification program. If necessary, he or she may also suggest medication. No single medication works on every pet, and sometimes different medications and different dosages will need to be tried in order to find the one that works best in your pet's situation.

Your veterinarian may also refer you to a specialist who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (represented in veterinarians’ credentials as DACVB). These veterinarians have received advanced education in pet behavior, and devote their time specifically to helping pets overcome difficult behavior problems, such as separation anxiety.

Anxiety and fear are complex issues for cats and dogs. Working with your veterinarian will help simplify the process and help improve life for both you and your pets.

Learn Your Dog's Anxiety Cues

Body language isn’t necessarily easy to read. For example, people aren’t always adept at figuring out how friends, family members or co-workers are feeling, hence miscommunications and unintentionally hurt feelings. Understanding nonverbal communication in our canine companions is no different.

While there are some classic (if subtle) signs that dogs display when they are anxious, you’ll need to take some time to observe and learn about your dog’s signs of fear or anxiety. Signs range from subtle (licking lips) to obvious (overt aggression). To complicate matters, many of the early behaviors associated with anxiety and fear are normal in certain circumstances. But, when displayed in different contexts or combined, these behaviors can indicate nervousness. For example, dogs pant when they exercise. But, if a dog hasn’t recently exercised, panting can be a sign of anxiety.

Most of the time, anxious or fearful dogs will display more than one symptom. If a pet's anxiety is left unchecked, he may show a progression from subtle signs to more obvious signs. Subtle signs include avoiding eye contact, repeated yawning or frequent licking of the lips. Obvious signs include laying the ears back on the head, lowering the head, tucking the tail, panting, salivating, pacing or trying to withdraw from the stimulus. Learning to recognize the signs of anxiety in your dog can be challenging, but by closely observing your dog’s facial expressions and body language, you can quickly begin to identify when he is anxious.

More on Vetstreet:

Join the Conversation

Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!