Just like with people, our pets can struggle with anxiety. Pet anxiety is a multifaceted problem that can have many causes, and can either be a temporary problem or a long-term issue requiring daily intervention. Some animals may show symptoms early in life, while others may develop worsening anxiety over time.
The unusual circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a spike in both short and long-term varieties. According to AKC Pet Insurance, dog separation anxiety cases have increased by over 700%, and the fear of strangers has risen by 295%.
When left untreated, pet anxiety can negatively impact the quality of life of both the pet and the owner, and in worst-case scenarios can result in injury to both people and pets. However, with effort and some expert help, anxiety in dogs and cats can often be a manageable situation.
What Causes Anxiety in Dogs and Cats?
A wide variety of stimuli can cause anxiety in companion animals. The first step to treating anxiety is determining its root cause. Some common causes of anxiety in cats and dogs include:
- Separation anxiety: Common in dogs and cats, separation anxiety accounts for 10-20% of all cases referred to veterinary behavioral specialists. Family members leaving for work or school can trigger separation anxiety, leading to destructive behavior. Former shelter pets are particularly prone to this type of anxiety.
- Noise phobias: Loud noises like thunderstorms, fireworks, and car alarms can trigger severe anxiety in some dogs and cats.
- Social anxiety: Some animals may become anxious when introduced to new people or animals. This type of anxiety can result from a lack of exposure to new stimuli during the socialization period in early life.
- Change-related anxiety: Events like a move, the addition of a new family member, pet, or roommate, or a change to the household routine can all cause stress and anxiety for pets.
- Travel anxiety: Vet visits, car trips, and air travel can introduce a lot of unfamiliar stimuli. These sudden changes to their surroundings can cause significant stress for pets used to a quieter environment.
- Trauma: Some anxiety stems from a single traumatic event in a pet’s life. Remember, a pet may perceive any given situation differently than a person would, and often things we would not consider as being traumatic to them in fact do cause stress.
Just like humans, pets are individuals. Determining the source of their anxiety can take time, and the cause may be unexpected. By looking for specific behaviors, you can learn valuable information about the origin of your pet’s distress.
Recognizing Signs of Pet Anxiety
Due to their limited means of communication, it can be challenging to determine which behaviors are normal and which are signs of pet anxiety. Pay attention to the frequency and intensity of your pet’s behavior and watch for sudden changes and newly developed issues.
Some signs of anxiety in dogs and cats are readily apparent. Others require pet owners to do some detective work. Common symptoms include:
- Aggression towards people or animals.
- Increased vocalization (hissing, howling, barking)
- Hypervigilance (stiff posture, dilated pupils, ear posture)
- Urinating or defecating indoors
- Decreased appetite/gastrointestinal upset
- Compulsive behavior (digging, chewing, licking, over-grooming)
- Hiding or acting depressed
- Destructive behavior
- Increased respiration/panting
- Excessive shedding
If you suspect your pet has anxiety, keep a log of their symptoms and suspected triggers to show to your vet. A professional can help you determine if the behavior is normal or a potential indication of anxiety. Some testing may be necessary to rule out possible medical explanations for some behaviors.
How to Treat Anxiety in Dogs and Cats
Once you’ve identified the anxiety triggers in your pet, you can begin implementing a treatment plan. This plan will likely have multiple components, including changes to the animal’s environment, routine, and diet.
Be sure to speak to a veterinary professional before significantly changing your pet’s diet or introducing any medication.
Create a Safe Haven
One effective method to address anxiety in dogs and cats is to create designated spaces they can retreat to during times of stress. Introducing a cozy crate, tunnel, or bed can give pets a quiet and comfortable place to go when needed.
Introducing calming scents and pheromones into the home can be particularly effective in reducing anxiety in cats and dogs with separation anxiety. Increasing soundproofing around the home and removing noise triggers can help reduce stress for pets suffering from noise-related anxiety.
Regular Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Physical activity improves both physical and mental health in pets. Increasing physical activity like walks, interactive play, and training can reduce anxiety in cats and dogs and promote bonding between you and your pet. A strong bond of trust is essential in helping to manage pet anxiety.
Interactive toys and games, puzzle feeders that simulate hunting and promote problem-solving, and regular walks can all provide the mental stimulation needed to help treat separation anxiety in dogs and cats.
Establish a Consistent Routine
For animals with anxiety, a consistent routine can be an essential component of treatment. Having an established schedule with lots of opportunities for bonding and interaction can reduce the anxiety caused by triggers like you or another family member leaving for work or the sound of the garbage truck.
Positive Reinforcement and Training
While you should never punish a pet for anxiety-related behavior, as doing so can worsen it, you should reward calm and positive behavior. Sometimes called counter-conditioning, rewards of treats and affection can help with positive reinforcement.
For example, suppose a pet is struggling to adapt to a new addition to the household. In that case, you may want to consider rewarding them with a treat whenever they encounter the new addition calmly. Eventually, they will associate the presence of the new person and their calm reaction to them with the positive experience of being given a treat.
Introducing pets to triggers in controlled settings can be a good way to reduce anxiety linked to specific situations like noise, car, or crate-related anxiety. You can gradually minimize fear and stress by repeatedly introducing the trigger or condition non-threateningly.
For example, a pet struggling with travel anxiety may benefit from practice getting into and out of a stationary car, then from short drives around the neighborhood, and then from longer trips to places they find pleasant. Additionally, if you have a cat that becomes stressed with the appearance of the cat carrier, leave it out and open in the home when it is not in use. Consider adding some padding to the bottom and introducing occasional treats or catnip to draw their interest.
However, repeatedly putting animals into high-stress situations that send them into a panic response will not accomplish anything and will likely worsen their anxiety.
Utilize Calming Products
A wide range of products is available to help treat anxiety in cats and dogs. Introducing anxiety-relieving beds, pet anxiety vests, or special crates can be a practical step in treating pet anxiety.
Dietary changes like special food formulated to reduce stress and anxiety or special calming treats can also be beneficial. Additional over-the-counter treatments like CBD products may also help, but you should thoroughly discuss these medications with your vet before using them.
In some severe cases, treatment may include prescription medications. This medication may be long-term, meant to treat generalized anxiety, or short-term or situational, to reduce acute anxiety caused by environmental triggers like fireworks.
When to Seek Professional Help for Pet Anxiety
If you suspect your dog or cat is struggling with anxiety, talk to your vet during your pet’s next wellness visit. A good veterinarian can help you rule out underlying medical issues that can cause similar symptoms. They can also help tailor solutions to your pet’s needs, developing a professional treatment plan and monitoring its success.
If the problem is more than can ideally be addressed in an office setting, they can help you connect with behavioral therapists and put you in touch with reputable training programs. You’ll also need their help if your pet needs the intervention of prescription anxiety medication.
The Importance of Mindfulness for Pet Owners
Treating pet anxiety is a long-term process that can take months or years of consistent effort. It’s important to remain calm, positive, and loving during treatment. Reacting aggressively or negatively to anxiety-related behavior can worsen symptoms and damage trust, making treatment more difficult.
When you remain calm and consistent, it creates a foundation of trust that can help to stabilize an anxious pet. With careful attention and some expert help, treating pet anxiety is possible.
Take the First Step to Reducing Pet Anxiety
Pet anxiety can feel debilitating when the behaviors begin, and it can be challenging to find the cause of the anxiety and know how to help. Be patient and persistent, carefully observing your pet to find the root cause, and work with professionals like the team at Ballantyne Vet to develop a treatment plan.
Pets rely on their owners for everything, and part of being a responsible pet owner is ensuring that your dog or cat feels safe and secure in their daily environment. When anxiety treatment is successful, it can lead to a robust and rewarding bond and a better life for both you and your pet.
If you’ve noticed anxiety symptoms in your pet and want to speak to an expert in the Charlotte area, contact Ballantyne Veterinary Clinic today to schedule an appointment. Our compassionate team is experienced in treating pet anxiety and can help your animal companion live a more comfortable and happy life.