Anxiety is a serious problem in the pet world, compounded by the fact that we humans are not very good at recognizing and dealing with anxious pets. Too often, we react to the behavioral consequences of anxiety (such as aggression, running away, or barking) as if it were the main problem. If instead we recognized anxiety as the root cause of many of these problematic behaviors, we would be much more likely to have well behaved and calmer pets.
Definitions are helpful when trying to understand a topic. Anxiety is a feeling of fear or distress that occurs as a normal response to a dangerous or stressful situation, or as an abnormal response to a “normal” situation.
Signs of anxiety in humans include tremors, sweating, rapid pulse, dry mouth, and nausea. We humans know these feelings well. Cats and dogs also suffer from anxiety and suffer from the same physical sensations.
Think of a cat crushed in a carrier, loaded into a car, and driven to the vet: it will suffer from all of these physical signs, often vocalized in the form of an unhappy meow. Or consider a cat that begins to urinate inside the house because it fears being attacked by a nearby tom when it goes to the bathroom outside. If you see a cat like this outside, it will be tense, shaky and nervous: classic signs of anxiety.
Or think of a dog who has spent the last two years with his owner continually by his side during the COVID shutdowns. Now that the owner is going to work, the dog is on his own, and he is not used to this loneliness: anxiety is a natural response, and again, the physical signs are the same as those experienced by a anxious human. If you watch a dog on a webcam in this situation, you’ll see footsteps, fussiness, panting, and other obvious signs of distress. Fireworks and thunderstorms also cause anxiety in many animals. Another example would be a dog that has already been attacked by another dog in the park: it will tremble, put its tail between its paws and stay close to its owner if another dog approaches it.
The main lesson here is that anxious pets look anxious when you watch them: anxiety body language is universal, crossing species barriers.
There are two important issues to discuss with anxiety in pets: first, how to deal with it when it happens, and second, importantly, how to prevent it from happening in the first place. .
Even if the anxiety stimulus is, in itself, non-threatening (like a dog left to its own devices), avoiding anxiety-provoking situations is the easiest way to prevent anxiety.
The next step is to try to help the animal learn not to be anxious in these situations. This requires the help of a behaviorist and a veterinarian. The general idea is known as “desensitization and counter-conditioning”, a lingo that sounds complicated, but is simple when explained.
“Desensitization” consists in familiarizing the animal with the anxiety-provoking situation by exposing it to very small doses (for example, by leaving the animal alone for a few minutes at first, then by gradually extending the time of autonomy at as long as he remains calm).
“Counter-conditioning” means rewarding the animal with positive experiences when it remains calm and relaxed instead of becoming anxious (for example, giving a dog treats and playing games with it when it remains relaxed after been left to fend for itself).
The general idea is that pets can learn not to feel anxious over time.
There are many cases where the anxiety is so intense that the animals feel too panicked to even begin the desensitization process. This is when anxiolytics come in handy. A number of licensed products are now available from veterinarians for anxious animals, including tablets (the equivalent of “Prozac” for pets) and pheromones (plug-in sprays that help animals calm down) . These additional tools make it possible to calm the animal sufficiently so that it learns to cope with anxiety-provoking situations: once desensitized using these artificial crutches, it is then better able to manage on its own, gradually weaned from the products.
Treating anxiety can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. So it makes much more sense to prevent anxiety in pets from developing in the first place. And it’s surprisingly easy to do when you know how.
The key is to recognize that dogs and cats have a “sensitive socialization period” when they are able to learn to accept new experiences without fear. It lasts three to nine weeks in kittens and three to 14 weeks in dogs. Animal keepers should be aware that they need to provide young pets with positive experiences in a variety of situations during this period: meeting a wide range of people (e.g. babies, bearded men, women wearing hats) and animals (huge dogs, tiny dogs, etc.), hearing a range of different noises (e.g. soundtracks of fireworks and thunderstorms), being exposed to different situations (e.g. traveling by car, spending time in a carrier, etc.). Better socialization at a young age correlates well with older animals being less anxious. This is one of the main reasons why puppies on puppy farms are often more nervous adult animals: they are usually poorly socialized when young.
Anxiety is an unpleasant emotion for pets as well as humans: do your best to prevent it and make sure that if your pet feels anxious you are taking the right steps to help.