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Taming the wild beast — anxiety in pets

Sure, the memes of a dog sitting in the middle of a pile of couch stuffing seem funny enough –when it’s not your couch that just got destroyed. Escape artists, destructive chewers, and dogs who bark endlessly can be very problematic. Shortly after adopting a senior Labrador, I learned she had been relinquished for unrelenting howling whenever she was left alone. For my neighbors’ sake, I had to figure it out pretty quickly! When we understand the underlying problems that lead a pet to those dastardly deeds, we stand a much better chance of saving both their sanity – and yours.

What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety originates when a pet anticipates a future danger, and begins to experience the physical reactions associated with fear. Anxiety can be triggered by a variety of causes, with the most common in dogs being separation anxiety — fear of being alone. It can be learned over time when a pet associates a place or event with a negative outcome, which as a veterinarian I see more often than I would like! Anxiety may also be triggered by a specific stimulus such as a thunderstorm, vacuum cleaner, or even something no one can explain like a baseball cap. Dogs have a mind of their own!

A pet experiences anxiety in different ways. In mild cases, he or she may tremble, lick her lips, or tucker her tail in a “cowering” posture. As the anxiety progresses to panic, pets may go to extremes to attempt to escape: chewing through wooden door frames, scaling huge fences, digging under walls until their toenails fall off, or the aforementioned dismantling of furniture. Many cats exhibit anxiety through marking behavior or sudden aggression. The stress hormones associated with anxiety can cause house soiling, vomiting, or diarrhea.

What Can I Do for My Anxious Pet?

If you suspect your pet is suffering from anxiety, the first step is a checkup with the veterinarian to make sure she isn’t suffering from a medical problem. Some of the symptoms of anxiety are also caused by pain, infectious, or nervous system disorders, so it’s important to rule out those medical conditions. If they get the all-clear, your veterinarian can help you chart out a plan for coping with the anxiety. Behaviorists are particularly helpful with some of the more complicated types of anxiety such as separation anxiety.

We have lots of tools at our disposal for calming an anxious pet. For milder cases, many owners report success with home remedies. Compression shirts may be useful for certain pets; pheromone diffusers are often used in cats. Some pets respond to calming music, which serves the double purpose of having a calming influence while masking sounds such as fireworks. In severe cases, your veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help your pet through the rough patches. Yes, we have doggie Xanax.

No matter which route you take, the number one key to eliminating anxiety behaviors is to figure out the source of the anxiety, and simply eliminate it. In some cases, it’s a simple fix. But in more complex cases or cases where you cannot avoid the source of the pet’s anxiety, it can take working through a desensitization and counterconditioning program with a good trainer to reduce the pet’s fear response to a stimulus.

It took us a combination of training, medication, and lots of treats to get my dog’s separation anxiety down to a manageable level, but with time and patience we were able to ease her fears. If your pet has anxiety, don’t fear getting help! The sooner you start the sooner everyone will feel much better!