Just like people, pets get anxiety. When our pets are frightened and nervous, it is a major concern for us pet parents. At AHBC we see many patients who have anxiety. Many of our own pets have it, too.
Anxiety Comes in Many Forms
Anxiety in pets is often situational. Thunderstorms often cause it. Fireworks or loud noises can cause it. Company can cause it. Strangers can cause it; sometimes anxiety is so specific that only strangers in hats or glasses cause it. Change, such as moving to a new home, almost always causes it.
Some anxiety is temporary—your pet will go back to his or her happy self when the thunderstorm goes away. Yet even temporary anxiety can reinforce itself in unhealthy ways. Consider a dog who barks like crazy at the sight of a stranger out the window. When the stranger passes and leaves the dog’s view, he thinks he made the threat go away by barking! This only leads to more anxious barking at every stranger sighting.
Anxiety can be situational and long term at the same time. Separation anxiety, which is common, is both situational—since we cannot stay home with our pets all day—and long term, since pets experience it daily on an ongoing basis. We call this long-term daily anxiety.
The point is: Anxiety is complex. The good news is: We have many ways to make it better.
Is My Pet’s Anxiety My Fault? No!
The first thing to understand about anxiety is it is not the pet parent’s fault! Anxiety in pets often has a genetic predisposition. Plus, experiences in the first four weeks of life, well before most pets are adopted, can alter a pet’s response to any given situation and make him or her prone to anxiety.
Sometimes one bad experience or encounter can instill anxiety that lingers long term. We humans can never really know why our dog “hates” people in hats or glasses. But we can do something about it. We can help.
Medication Is a Great Tool
The second thing to understand about anxiety, or any behavioral condition in pets, is that medication can really help.
Using medication is not about “drugging” your pet. We would never want to change his or her unique and beautiful personality. Anti-anxiety medication serves a specific purpose only; it is targeted to your pet’s needs, situational or long-term or both. Medication can greatly help your pet relax, be happier—and live his or her best life as his or her best self.
Some pets need life-long medication because they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, which is a genetic predisposition. Again, we will not “drug” your pet; the goal is to normalize brain chemistry so your pet can live a normal life without anxiety. For pets who struggle against taking pills, anti-anxiety meds can be compounded into flavored liquids, flavored soft chews, or often even transdermal gels absorbed through the skin inside the ear.
Yet medication alone may not be quite enough. To fully manage anxiety, at-home behavior therapy—led by you, the amazing pet parent—is essential.
The Key to Behavior Therapy: Knowing What Not to Do
Well-meaning, loving pet parents often reinforce anxiety without even realizing it. Understandably, we want to comfort our anxious pets. We usually do this by giving them lots of attention, in the form of pets and rubs, hugs and kisses…and lots of baby talk. We think we’re helping—yet this form of help actually has unintended negative consequences.
Did you know? Comforting and baby talk actually lead to more anxiety. Why? Because comforting an anxious pet validates the pet’s anxiety and ensuing anxious behavior. It tells your pet that he should be anxious and that his behavior is correct.
When pets get attention, it means their humans like what they’re doing and want them to keep doing it—our attention sends the message that what they’re doing is the right thing to do. Think about housebreaking a puppy; we give positive attention for learning to go to the bathroom outside. Think about teaching your dog to sit; we give positive attention for learning this task.
We reinforce anxiety in the same way. If you comfort your dog when he cowers during a thunderstorm, you’re telling him: “Keep cowering. It’s the right thing to do.” What we actually want to do is not to help him keep cowering but instead to help lessen his anxiety in the first place.
This is where behavior therapy plays a powerful role.
Behavior Therapy: Be Calm, Use Distraction
When your pet gets anxious, stay calm and quiet. Act normal. We know this can be very hard! Keep in mind it really is the best way to help your pet. Remind yourself: “When I give my pet this attention, I am encouraging him to feel anxious and reinforcing that when something is scary, he should act anxious.”
You can also help lessen anxiety through distraction. Distracting your pet from whatever is making him anxious in the immediate is extremely useful in certain circumstances.
Distraction With Treats
When an anxious situation such as a thunderstorm presents itself, offer your pet a food toy. For small dogs, this can be as simple as putting a few treats or kibbles in a toilet paper roll with each end pinched together. A Kong toy filled with peanut butter or canned dog food can also work wonders.
If your dog gets anxious around strangers, distraction with treats can work when you’re out on a walk. Just make sure you offer treats before high anxiety kicks in, such as when the stranger is in sight but still far away; otherwise you’re inadvertently rewarding the anxiety.
Distraction With Sound
If your pet is anxious with company, put him in a room away from the action and play music or turn on the television to drown out the noise of people. This can also work with scary noises from thunderstorms, construction, or even loud traffic.
If you dog or cat is too anxious to accept distraction, then this is where medical intervention comes in.
How We Can Help
We know you really want to help my pet. We do, too!
Our veterinarians have special training in animal behavior. We can help you train your dog not to be afraid. The first step is to schedule a behavior consultation to talk through everything that’s going on. Please call us at (919) 544-2226 to start the process to a happier pet.
For pets who are too anxious even to accept training, we often prescribe medications for both situational anxiety and long-term anxiety, called trazodone and fluoxetine respectively. These medicines will help decrease anxiety to a more manageable level so that behavioral training can begin.
A final note: In combination, medicine and therapy can often lessen anxiety by a significant degree—yet anxiety may never be fully “cured.” Our goal is to help you help your pet live as anxiety-free as possible.