According to the 2018 PAW report, 80 % of pet owners say that their dog or cat is scared of something. 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 differences.
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.
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.
Anxiety can be 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 aggression.
How is anxiety treated?
- 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 around a quarter of all behaviour cases have a medical issue or pain associated with the problem.
- Prevention is better than cure. Avoiding breeding from very nervous or anxious individuals is sensible.
- Socialise the animal appropriately. For dogs, the critical phase for socialisation is between 3 and 12 weeks. For cats it is between 2 and 8 weeks. Exposing them, appropriately, to a range of situations that they are likely to have to interact with helps them to cope throughout their lives.
- 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 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.
- Observing stress signals and removing the animal from the environment that triggers the behavioural response helps. Opening up the channel of communication can, in itself, help lower an animal’s anxiety. Knowing that an owner is taking care of them helps them feel more relaxed.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Avoid intensifying the problem. Never shout or punish an animal, even if they are using aggression as an expression of their anxiety.
- As part of a treatment plan there are a number of other natural products that may help:
- Adaptil is a dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) that signals safety and security.
- Feliway Classic is a feline pheromone associated with security whereas Feliway Friends is used to reduce anxiety associated with inter-cat social conflict. Diffusers, sprays and collars are available for Adaptil and Feliway products.
- L-Theanine and B vitamins are other natural ingredients that can also help to support a mildly anxious animal. These are contained in Adaptil tablets which can be used safely in dogs.
- Zylkene is a dietary supplement and is based on a protein found in mothers’ milk called caseozepine. Studies suggest that it helps to induce calm behaviour. Zylkene is available in a capsule form and the contents can be sprinkled on food.
- 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 plan.
- 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.
- To learn more about pet anxiety I shall be presenting a short seminar on the 11th May, talking about how fear and anxiety can lead to canine aggression. For information and booking click here.
- Share your pet’s story and find out more on pet anxiety by following this link – Use the hashtags: #pawsforthought #petanxiety
If you would like some 1 to 1 help with your pet please look at my behaviour page for details