People are not the only animals that have anxiety. Any animal can have anxiety. Cats and dogs are no exception. Anxiety in pets can be situational such as due to thunderstorms, fireworks, or moving to a new home. Anxiety in pets can be long term every single day. Separation anxiety can be considered situational but because we cannot stay home with our pets all day every day it really is considered long term day to day anxiety.
The first thing to understand about anxiety is that it is not the pet parent’s fault, any more than a human’s anxiety is their parents’ fault. Anxiety in pets has a genetic predisposition. In addition, experiences in the first four weeks of life, which is before most pets are adopted, can alter a pet’s responses to any situation and even make the pet prone to long term daily anxiety. In fact, if kittens are not handled by humans within the first four weeks of life their behavior with humans may not be normal. Kittens not handled by people within the first eight weeks of life will always have feral tendencies.
The second thing to understand about anxiety, or any other behavioral condition in pets, is that while medication can help, behavior therapy at home is required to lessen or cure anxiety. It is also important to realize that while anxiety can always be decreased it cannot always be completely cured.
So, what does behavior therapy for anxiety entail? It is really not as complicated as it sounds. When a pet is anxious the most important thing to know is what not to do. As humans, when someone is anxious we are used to giving them attention and finding out what is wrong so we can help. For pets this way of thinking can result in disastrous consequences. Giving an anxious pet attention tells the pet that they should be anxious and that their behavior is correct. First, when a pet gets attention that generally is what humans do to tell them they are doing the right thing (think: when you potty trained puppy and gave her attention for going outside or gave your dog attention when he learned to sit or gave sweet talk when your kitten scratched on the scratching post for the first time). Also, when the pet parent’s behavior is not normal (ie giving extra attention for no apparent reason), the pet senses that something is wrong because something is different. The thing to do when you pet is anxious is to stay calm and quiet. Another important way to help is to distract your pet. Call your dog or cat to you and give them a food toy. For cats and small dogs this can be as simple as some treats or kibbles of food in a toilet paper roll with the ends pinched together. For a larger dog you may want to keep a Kong or West Paw toy filled with canned dog food or peanut butter in the freezer or to have a commercial dog toy (toughness depending the chew potential of the pooch in question) that can hold kibble and gotten out slowly. If you dog or cat is too anxious to accept distraction, then this is where medical intervention comes in.
How can your veterinarian help? Veterinarians have special training in animal behavior. Veterinarians can help you to train your dog not to be afraid. For pets that are too afraid to be susceptible to training, veterinarians can prescribe medications such as fluoxetine long term and trazodone for situational anxiety to help the anxiety decrease to a more manageable level. Sometimes certain pets with daily anxiety may need life long medications. These pets often have a chemical imbalance of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that need to be normalized by medications. It is not drugging a pet to make them calm and sedated, but normalizing the brain chemistry to create a normal non-anxious pet. For pets that are difficult to medicate, these drugs can be compounded into flavored liquids, flavored soft chews, or often even transdermal gels that are absorbed through the skin inside the ear.
Remember that anxiety in pets can be properly treated and greatly reduced with the right treatment. If you have any questions, ask your friendly neighborhood veterinarian for help.