Steps to Identify and Ease Anxiety in Pets
It’s an all too common scene: You return home from running errands, expecting a warm greeting from your pet. Instead, you find that your dog has destroyed the sofa or your cat has eliminated on the rug. Welcome home! It can be natural to think your pet is angry with you when he exhibits behaviors like these, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
So, what’s really going on inside your pet’s head? Possibly feelings of anxiety and fear.
Anxiety and fear are common contributing factors to behavior problems in dogs and cats. Pets express these feelings in different ways, including destruction, vocalization, house soiling and aggression. Dogs and cats may experience anxiety or fear for a variety of reasons: thunderstorms or other loud noises, traveling in the car, strange people or animals and, of course, separation from you.
Don’t Take it Personally
It can be confusing when your pet acts fearful or anxious about things that, from your point of view, don’t seem scary. Be aware that anxiety isn’t always rational. It’s not for people to say, “There’s no reason for my pet to be afraid of thunder or being left alone.” If a pet perceives something as frightening, then the pet’s perception is the reality that he will act on.
Many cats that inappropriately eliminate outside the litterbox may be experiencing anxiety. The anxiety can be a result of outdoor or household cats that make the cat feel threatened. Dramatic changes, such as a new baby, new dog or new spouse, can also cause anxiety. Try to see the problem through your cat’s eyes: If there’s a cause for his anxiety, fear or stress, chances are, he is not acting out of spite or anger toward you.
Similarly, dogs that experience anxiety because of loud noises, new dogs, strangers or discomfort about being alone may be feeling profound distress. Don’t take it personally. Try to sympathize with your pet.
How to Help
Before you reach your wit’s end, remember that there are steps you can take to help your pet feel less anxious.
Visit the veterinarian. First, your veterinarian will want to determine if any underlying medical problems could be contributing to the behavior. For example, inappropriate urination, especially in cats, can be a result of bladder inflammation or stones, urinary tract infections or other diseases, such as diabetes. Your veterinarian can perform an examination and any necessary diagnostic tests to help rule out medical factors. Because inappropriate urination in cats can also be caused by litterbox factors, your veterinarian will also discuss ways to make it more enticing, from proper cleaning to adding more litterboxes, or simply changing to a different type of litter.
Once all the other potential causes are ruled out, your veterinarian can work with you to help identify the source of stress and create a plan to help relieve your pet’s anxiety and resolve the inappropriate behaviors.
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.
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