anxiety in dogs

Anxiety in Dogs and Cats

By Dr. Bruce Little

Fear and anxiety in pets can come from many different sources. Pets can become fearful of people, sounds, sights, and other pets, either within your home or out in public. The cause can usually can be traced back to inadequate handling and exposure during the first few months of their lives. Perhaps previous unpleasant encounters with people or other pets, medical problems or genetics can be the root cause of your pet’s anxiety.  

While undergoing training, keep your pet away from situations that might make them anxious. Avoid crowded areas during walks and confine him in a quiet room during noisy social events in your home.

No matter what the cause, the goal is to teach your pet to be relaxed and comfortable around people and other pets, so they can enjoy their company. Here’s how:

Control your emotions: Your pet takes cues from you. If you are anxious or nervous, your pet may take that emotion as their own. Avoid stressful situations until you are comfortable and able to calm your pet.

Educate visitors: Make your pet more comfortable by instructing visitors how to act in their presence. The less threatening the person appears the better. A quiet tone of voice and slow body movements are important.

Use positive reinforcement: If your pet is extremely anxious around people, begin where they’re most comfortable, perhaps in your home or yard. To lessen your pet’s anxiety, you repeatedly associate something positive in the presence of other people, like their favorite treat or words of praise.

Help them relax: Encourage your pet to sit and relax and when they do so, give them a favorite treat. Relaxing is key in training your pet to become comfortable around strange people.  Pets learn best when they’re relaxed and comfortable.

Go slowly: Once your pet learns to accept unfamiliar people and places, gradually introduce them to similar but progressively more challenging situations. Quicker movements and various tones of voice will slowly become less bothersome.

Anxiety in cats

Pay attention: Specific nuances about a person or place may make a pet anxious. Pay attention to what makes your pet the most anxious and avoid these stimuli in your initial training sessions. As they become more comfortable, increase exposure until your pet is okay with most situations.

Get accessories: If a dog exhibits aggression when introduced to strangers, you may need special equipment. A head halter and leash can allow you to control the position of his head and eyes. Staring into the eyes of a fearful dog can worsen his anxiety and aggressiveness. Thunderstorms, loud noises, street traffic and fireworks can cause anxiety and fear in your pets.  There are several products that can be purchased at pet stores that may help your dog to overcome its anxiety, like Thundershirts or Calming Caps. There are various calming sprays and hormone solutions, such as Feliway and Adaptil, that may lessen the fear in these situations. All these products are available at pet stores.

Consult your veterinarian: In some cases you may want to explore anti-anxiety drugs for your pets. There are a variety of drugs tailored to fit certain degrees of anxiety including tranquilisers, pheromones, and herbal medications. Your veterinarian will know how to determine which drug is most likely to be successful and is safe and will recommend the appropriate product and dosage. Find a veterinarian in your area.

And there are a few things that are best to stay away from:

Don’t force your pet against their will: Encouraging visitors to approach and reach out to your fearful pet only makes matters worse. Even if your pet allows strangers to pet them, it doesn’t mean they enjoys it.

Don’t console them after aggression: If your pet feels trapped and becomes aggressive to an intruder, don’t console them, as you may inadvertently reinforce the aggressive behavior. Since the goal is to change the association from fear to a positive situation, any unpleasant encounter will make the situation worse.  

Don’t get physical: Don’t raise your voice or yell and never use physical punishment or harsh corrections such as pinching, choking, or hitting. Physical punishment may temporarily stop the undesirable behavior, but it will only heighten your pet’s fear and anxiety.

In most cases, pets won’t be afraid of people if they have opportunities to experience and interact with a wide variety of people and circumstances during their first few months of life.  If they are frequently handled in a gentle manner and raised without harsh training techniques or physical punishment, they will adapt to living with the family quite well.

For more information visit the American Animal Hospital Association.