Many people suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Fortunately for humans, there are resources and tools readily available to help us decrease our anxieties. But what about our four-legged counterparts? Do they feel anxiety too? And if so, how can we best help them when they are unable to express what’s plaguing them?
Breaking Down Anxiety in Pets
Like us, animals can develop anxiety. Victims of cruelty, abuse or neglect, may be especially prone to anxiety. But anxiety can occur in animals from any background.
Separation anxiety is most commonly seen in pets. Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs or cats become upset because of separation from their guardians, or the people they’re attached to. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.
There is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why pets develop anxiety. However, because far more pets who have been adopted from shelters have this behavior problem than those kept by a single family since puppyhood, it is believed that the loss of an important person or group of people in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety. Other less dramatic changes can also trigger the disorder such as a change in schedule, in residence or in household membership.
Recognizing the Signs
One of the most common complaints of pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone or when they are attempting to leave. Their dogs might:
- Urinate or defecate
- Bark or Howl
- Chew/destroy things
- Try to escape
- Attempt to prevent you from leaving
Although these problems often indicate that a dog needs to be taught polite house manners, they can also be symptoms of distress. When a dog’s problems are accompanied by other distress behaviors, such as drooling and showing anxiety or depression when his pet parents prepare to leave the house, it’s likely evidence that the dog has separation anxiety.
In cats, signs like hiding, not eating, social withdrawal, panting, hypervigilance, dilated pupils, aggression and twitching tails or ears can indicate stress and anxiety.
How to Help
Since a pet can’t call their therapist when they need a lift, it is up to pet parents to help their furry friends when dealing with pet anxiety.
First things first, you want to rule out any medical conditions. Some dogs’ house soiling is caused by incontinence. A number of medical issues can cause urinary incontinence in dogs. Before attempting behavior modification for separation anxiety, see your veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
Also, be mindful of any medications your pet may be on. There are several medications that can cause frequent urination and house soiling. If your pet takes any medications, please contact their veterinarian to find out whether their medications might contribute to house-soiling or other problems.
You’ll also want to rule out any behavioral problems such as submissive or excitement urination, urine marking, juvenile destruction, boredom and excessive barking, howling or vocalization due to environmental factors.
Do not scold or punish your dog or cat. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses. If you punish them, they may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
Once you’ve determined that your pet is experiencing anxiety, there are many methods you can use to help soothe your dog and make them feel more comfortable when being left alone:
Desensitization and counterconditioning are common methods, but they are complex and can be tricky to carry out. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan for your pet, we recommend that you consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear with desensitization and counterconditioning. See our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
Crate training can also be helpful for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone. However, for other dogs, the crate can cause added stress and anxiety. In order to determine whether or not you should try using a crate, monitor your dog’s behavior during crate training and when he’s left in the crate while you’re home. If he shows signs of distress, crate confinement isn’t the best option for him. Instead of using a crate, you can try confining your dog to one room behind a baby gate.
Giving your dog plenty of “jobs” to do can also be helpful. Providing lots of physical and mental stimulation can be a vital part of anxiety treatment and exercising your dog’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviors. Keep your dog busy and happy by incorporating additional aerobic activity into your routine, playing fun, interactive games, walking on new routes and trails, providing food puzzle toys or enrolling in a rewards-based training class.
Medication or supplements may be the right option for your pet, as the use of medications can be very helpful, especially for severe cases of anxiety. On rare occasions, a dog with mild separation anxiety might benefit from drug therapy alone, without accompanying behavior modification. Sometimes for cats, veterinarians will advise using pheromones or calming treats before prescribing medication. Always consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist before giving your dog or cat any type of medication or supplement for a behavior problem.