Pet Anxiety

A spaniel that is crouching and cowering with an anxious expression on his face, wide pupils which show that he is feeling stressed

According to the 2022 PAW report 23% of dogs are growling, biting, snapping or showing signs of fear and 11%  (1.1 million) are showing signs of stress when left alone. In cats,  44% % of  owners report that their cat is showing signs that may be indicative of stress.  This short article is designed to raise awareness about pet anxiety and to highlight that there is something you can do to help your pet.

What is Anxiety?

The terms Fear and anxiety are often discussed inter-changeably. However there are  some differences although the emotional effects are the same.

Fear is a normal adaptive emotional response to an actual specific stimulus. For example your pet may be frightened of a sudden loud crash of thunder and take steps to protect themselves. In most cases they will hide and take cover. However some pets are fearful and sensitive to lots of things that occur regularly and this can affect their emotional health and well-being.

Anxiety causes an animal to be in a state of increased arousal and does not always involve a specific fear inducing stimulus to cause it. However, anxiety may initially have been triggered by a fearful event. This initial fright might have occurred some time ago and so reflecting back on what preceded the anxiety might help identify the original trigger.

Certain individuals may be more prone to anxiety. This is often the case if the mother was anxious. Genetics (inherited traits) and social learning (following the mother’s behaviour) can affect an animal’s emotional development.

Signs of anxiety, stress and fear can include:

  • Alterations in the ear position (lowered and flattened to the head or tense and upright)
  • Alternations in tail posture – in dogs usually tucked close to the anus
  • Baring the teeth in dogs, hissing in cats
  • Cowering, crouching and cringing
  • Dilated pupils (widening of the pupils)
  • Easily startled
  • Excessive salivation (drooling)
  • Hiding (and climbing up to get out of the way)
  • Hypervigilance (on high alert)
  • Licking and chomping
  • Lunging towards the object of fear (dogs)
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Urinating and defaecating in fear

Anxiety can be emotionally crippling and results in a stress response that, over time, affects health and welfare. Many of us may have experienced anxiety ourselves. It makes us reactive, affects relaxation and is not a pleasant place to be emotionally. Long term stress is also responsible for illness and increased infections. This is due to the negative effect it has on the immune system.

Understanding how anxiety impacts on animal behaviour is therefore a fundamental part of my work as an animal behaviourist. For example, anxiety can be responsible for: impulsive behaviour, separation issues, inappropriate toileting and is commonly at the root of aggressive behaviours.

How is anxiety treated?

  1. First of all it is wise to get the animal checked by a vet. This helps eliminate any pain or medical illness. Studies estimate that at least a third of all behaviour cases have a medical issue or pain associated with the problem.
  2. Prevention is better than cure. Avoiding breeding from very nervous or anxious individuals is sensible. Also keeping a pregnant mother calm can help as stress hormones pass through the womb to the unborn foetus. Believe it or not, these can affect how that individual copes with stress in the future.
  3. Socialise the animal appropriately. For dogs, the critical phase for socialisation is somewhere between 3 and 14 weeks. For cats it is around 2 and 8 weeks. Exposing them, appropriately, to a range of situations that they are likely to see and have to interact with helps them to cope throughout their lives.
  4. Being able to use body-language to assess an animal’s emotional state helps an owner take the necessary action. Stress signals in dogs include: licking and chomping, averting eyes, using a side-on stance, raising a paw and taking on a tense body posture. Cats generally try to hide or use 3D space to get out of the way. Other subtle stress cues in cats can be detected by a tense body posture with feet planted rather than tucked in. This means they are always ready to flee should the need arise.
  5. Observing stress signals and removing the animal from the environment that triggers the behavioural response helps. Responding in this way opens up the channel of communication  which can, in itself, help lower an animal’s anxiety. Knowing that an owner is taking care of them helps them feel more relaxed.
  6. Distraction strategies can help to get an animal out of a difficult situation especially for dogs. Better still, teach them alternative behaviours. Using a number of games, and cues can help our animals to focus on other, more emotionally positive, things. Training them beforehand has to be undertaken in a quiet and calm place in the early stages. Gradually, these same fun activities can be introduced in slightly more distracting places. Over time the aim is for the animal to be able to focus on them in more challenging environments.
  7. Providing mental enrichment gives animals an outlet. Foraging for food, using puzzle feeders and scent games can all help divert energy in a positive manner. Here is a video showing how to create a canine mental agility course
  8. Keep a log of significant behaviours and events. Think about: when, why and how the animal is affected. This type of reflection can be revealing and helps as part of the development of a treatment plan. Use both written and video logs.
  9. Avoid intensifying the problem. Never shout or punish an animal, even if they are using aggression as an expression of their anxiety.
  10. As part of a treatment plan there are a number of other natural products that may help:

Pheromone therapy

  • Adaptil is a dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) that signals safety and security.
  • Feliway Classic is a feline pheromone associated with security whereas Feliway Optimum is used to reduce anxiety including that associated with inter-cat social conflict.
  • Diffusers, sprays and collars are available for Adaptil and Feliway products. These are widely available but getting them from your vet means that you can receive good advice about how to get the best from them.

Dietary supplements

  • Tryptophan and B vitamins are just some of the natural ingredients that can also help to support a mildly anxious animal. These are contained in a number of different products including Calmex. Speak to your vet about what they use and recommend.
  • Zylkene is a calming capsule containing a protein found in mothers’ milk called caseozepine. the contents can be sprinkled on the food which makes it easy to administer for dogs and cats. Studies suggest that it helps to induce calm behaviour.  Zylkene is available from your vet and other good outlets.
  1. Get professional help. Finding out what the underlying motivation for the anxiety is really important. Taking a full history and assessing an animal is where a suitably qualified behaviourist can help put together a suitable behaviour  modification plan.
  2. Prescription medicines may be required for more severe cases. These can help to reduce an animal’s anxiety to a level where learning can take place. Your vet can prescribe a suitable drug to be taken alongside a behaviour modification plan because taken on their own they are less effective.
  3. To learn more about pet anxiety I have designed a very reasonably priced short webinar  giving some useful tips and tactics which can be beneficial to a cat and dog’s emotional well-being.
  4. Take a look at my latest book – entitled Fear and Anxiety in Dogs. It is written especially for owners or those that work with dogs that suffer from these emotions.

If you would like some 1 to 1 help with your pet please look at my behaviour page for details.




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