Anxiety is a common problem that causes intense reactions in pets and can result in physiological effects that can significantly impair their quality of life. Anxiety conditions in pets, which can be triggered by multiple stressors, are comparable to humans’ panic attacks, and should be seriously addressed to prevent the pet from experiencing harmful distress. Keep reading to learn what causes stress in pets, and how to calm your dog or cat if they are affected.
Anxious Pet Causes
Issues that result in pet anxiety are varied, and can affect any pet at any age. The most common pet anxiety conditions include:
- Separation anxiety — Some pets develop an over-attachment to or dependency on their owners, and become extremely upset when they are separated.
- Noise aversion — Pets can develop an aversion to any noise, but common triggers include thunder, fireworks, traffic noise, and vacuums.
- Travel anxiety — Pets prefer routine, and travel that exposes them to unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells can be overstimulating and frightening.
- Anxiety triggered by strangers — Some pets become anxious and stressed around unfamiliar people or pets.
- Age-related anxiety — Cognitive dysfunction in pets is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, and causes issues such as memory loss, impaired learning ability, and confusion that results in anxiety.
Signs That Your Pet is Anxious
Pets can exhibit stress in multiple ways, with cats and dogs demonstrating their anxiety differently.
Acute stress tends to cause signs such as flattened ears, dilated pupils, growling, hiding, and aggression. A chronic condition can affect the cat’s behavior and routine, causing issues such as inappropriate urination or defecation, overgrooming, decreased appetite, destructive behavior, and reduced interaction.
Signs in anxious dogs include excessive barking, panting, restlessness, destructive behavior, drooling, urinating or defecating in the house, and aggression.
Managing Your Anxious Pet
A pet’s anxiety disorder should be addressed and managed appropriately to help mitigate their distress. Measures to help anxious pets include:
Scheduling a veterinary appointment
Any pet affected by an anxiety disorder should be evaluated by a veterinary professional. Noise aversion has been linked to musculoskeletal pain, and scientists believe the pet’s pain is exacerbated when they tense or startle at a loud noise, resulting in a negative association. In addition, anxious pets’ signs could indicate a medical condition, such as kidney disease or cognitive dysfunction, and such health concerns should be ruled out before attempting to address the issue through other methods.
Learning to read the pet’s body language
Pets use their body language to communicate, and knowing how to understand their signals will ensure they are removed from an upsetting situation as soon as possible.
Creating a safe zone
Pets should have a quiet place in the house where they can escape if they become overwhelmed or anxious. This area can be a closet or a small interior room that they can always access. When an event such as a thunderstorm or fireworks display can be predicted, the noise-averse pet can be confined to the safe zone with music or a television playing to help muffle the outside noise.
Comforting your pet
When a pet becomes anxious, the pet owner should remain calm so they do not exacerbate their anxiety, and comfort them, speaking in a calming voice.
Desensitizing your pet
This technique involves exposing the pet to diluted versions of their anxiety triggers, and rewarding them for remaining calm. The trigger can be intensified at each session to help the pet acclimate to the cause of their reaction.
Counterconditioning your pet
Counterconditioning involves teaching a pet to associate a positive experience with their anxiety trigger. For example, a dog who becomes anxious when another dog approaches can be taught to sit, and to expect a treat in this situation. Through repetition, the dog associates an approaching dog with receiving a treat.
Using a ThunderShirt
Close-fitting vests help some pets remain calm in stressful situations. These devices apply consistent pressure over the pet’s back and sides, causing an endorphin release that promotes a sense of wellbeing. Pet owners should acclimate their pet to the ThunderShirt during pleasant times to avoid the pet negatively associating with the device.
Providing drug therapy
Some pets’ anxiety disorder is so severe that they need medications to manage their condition. A veterinarian should be consulted to determine the best medication for the pet.
Preventing Anxious Pets
Not all anxiety disorders in pets can be prevented, but certain steps can decrease a pet’s risk. These include:
- Socializing your pet — Properly socialized pets are exposed to numerous new sights, sounds, smells, people, other animals, and situations in their first few months of life, which helps them learn to adapt to new experiences. Pets who are socialized appropriately are less likely to develop anxiety.
- Crate training your pet — Crate training can help a pet view their crate as their safe place when left alone or during stressful situations. First, take the appropriate steps to ensure the pet is properly acclimated to their crate.
- Providing appropriate mental and physical stimulation — Pets need physical and mental stimulation to help them stay engaged. Exercising the pet’s mind and body can provide enrichment, decrease stress, and provide appropriate outlets for normal behaviors.
Addressing a pet’s anxiety disorder appropriately is important, to ensure they don’t experience serious consequences from their severe distress. Scheduling a veterinary appointment should be the first step if your pet is exhibiting anxiety signs.