How to Help Your Anxious Pets
One of the most common reasons pet parents reach out to us is for help with their pet’s anxious behaviors. There is currently substantial ongoing research into the benefits of CBD with regards to pain, inflammation, seizure disorders, and of course anxiety and noise phobias. Every year we are flooded with calls from pet parents looking for a solution to help with the anxious behavior that often occurs when their pets encounter something they believe is scary or unavoidable. This could be trips to the groomer, driving in the car, being left at home and of course thunder and fireworks. In this article I highlight what anxiety looks like in pets along with some of its causes. Lastly, I will provide some natural and veterinary solutions for those interested in learning how to help your anxious pets.
What is Anxiety
The definition of anxiety from Merriam Webster is:
- An apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill; A mentally distressing concern or interest.
- An abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.
Simply put, the difference between anxiety and fear is that anxieties are generally unknown or unidentified. Fears on the other hand are known or learned. Consider the condition of separation anxiety. Pets can predict you’re leaving but they don’t know for how long. They don’t have all the information to predict your return. They cannot accurately predict the outcome so they internalize their stress and frustration which turns into anxiety. Once they have identified the process and trust you will come back regardless of the time, the anxiety subsides.
Fears and Phobias
Anxiety represents the discomfort of unknown and unpredictable outcomes. Fears and phobias are conditions relating to more clearly defined triggers and stimuli.
I’ll give you the example of a dog who is afraid of thunder or fireworks. While there is an unknown component of when and where they are, most dogs will recognize the sound of these noises immediately once they identify them and become fearful the next time it is identified. Once conditioned, one loud boom can terrify them the next time. Unfortunately anxiety can creep back in the picture because they may not know how to escape the noises. It is a scary and challenging feedback loop of stress that no pet should be in.
What does anxiety look like?
Anxiety can present itself in many ways and it doesn’t always look like anxiety for many pets initially. Many pets parents miss the early signs of anxiety only to realize the severity and scope much later.
For instance, a noise sensitive dog without diagnosed anxiety may only show mildly concerning behaviors. These may include widening of eyes, tucked ears or simply leaving the room. They may casually seek your comfort and sit near you suddenly which can be misconstrued as affection or interest in the owners. They may also paw at you leading you to think they want to play or eat. These are early warning signs of anxiety in pets which often go overlooked.
Common Anxious Behaviors
These are more obvious and concerning behaviors that are typical of anxious pets.
- Excessive Barking, Drooling and Panting
- Urinating or Defecating in the home
- Destructive Behavior
- Excessive grooming (Chewing or Licking)
- Repetitive or Compulsive Behaviors
As you can see these are much more concerning and obvious behaviors. No wonder pet parents will do almost anything they can to learn how to help their anxious pets.
Common Causes of Stress and Anxiety in Pets
Anxious behavior can happen for a variety of reasons and it is very subjective. Pets interpret sights, sounds, and smells based on their previous experiences with them. Previous socialization, inherited genetics and living history can all influence a pets’ likely hood for anxiety. Here is a list of some of the more common causes for anxious behavior in pets.
- Moving and changes to environment: Moving to a new unknown home or neighborhood is one of the most common reasons for anxiety to appear in pets.
- Travel: This is also very common since initially many pets only travel to the vet initially or have to travel a long distance at a young age which sets them up to distrust future travel events. Vehicles are another new environment with unpredictable movements and for many pets that is enough to elicit an anxious response.
- Separation from owners, other pets, or known environment.
Separation anxiety is very challenging for most pet owners. It can start from being home with our pets too much initially such as through the recent quarantine. You can see my previous article on it here. Separation anxiety can happen very early on and often has a genetic component to it which makes it more challenging. This often starts with your dog just shadowing and following you around from room to room. This manifests into sheer panic when your pet predicts your departure without an understanding of when you’ll return. Because this behavior is tied to previous owner behavior, this can be challenging to fix. Pet parents often commit to drastic and careful behavior change on their part to see improvement in separation anxiety.
- Social Discomfort: This happens often concurrently with an environment change. This can happen when transitioning pets from fosters to new adopters especially if the new environment has other pets, people, or other stimuli the pet is unfamiliar with or unsocialized to. This can also happen at dog parks, downtown areas and other public areas unfamiliar to your pet.
- Medical issues / Pain: Before I work with any animal presenting with Aggression, Anxiety or concerning behavior issues I always request a full vet workup to rule out internal conditions. As pets age changes in hearing, sight, mobility, as well as pain and inflammatory conditions may contribute to concerning anxious behaviors. These are often overlooked because many pet owners don’t know what these look like. Pets don’t communicate pain and discomfort the clearly and consistently. Symptoms of pain and anxiety like pacing and panting might be thought of as totally different issues.
Ways to Help Your Anxious Pets
Let’s learn a little about how to help your anxious pets. While oftentimes veterinary medicine is useful, there are some natural and effective ways to alleviate our pets stress and improve anxious behaviors.
Change the environment
If your dog shows anxiety over dogs and people passing by outside a front window to your home, consider reducing their view by moving furniture, closing blinds, or adding opaque window coverings. Since your dogs are respondent to their environment that is the first consideration after medical that I would focus on. This also includes adding white noise machines, or leaving music on so your pets can’t identify concerning trigger sounds. If you have slick floors, consider using carpet runners or rugs to help with traction if your pet is sensitive to them. Simply put, environmental changes are a great first step to help your dog relax.
Enrichment, Enrichment, Enrichment
This is also an environmental factor. The less your pets have to do and accomplish, the more they will focus on all the factors out of their control. You’ve heard the cliched phrase “an idle mind is the devils playground”. Regardless of the origin of this phrase, the point is our pets need stimulation just like we do and we often aren’t providing enough of it or the right kind. There are many ways to stimulate your pets with food and play. Consider finding ways to activate their senses more. Hide treats, toys, or food and actively stress their pet brains. This will keep them more relaxed throughout the rest of the day. For some direction on what this looks like, check out this video on how to entertain your dogs at home.
With our busy schedules, most pets don’t get enough physical exercise. If this is your indoor cat consider finding ways to play similar to how they would act outside. Add places for them to climb and escape or replicate prey behaviors with toys such as “games of chase” or “keep away”. If you have a dog consider adding an additional walk. Most dogs need at least 30-45min of physical exercise a day and often more with age and breed differences.
- On top of adding exercise, consider using a longer leash that allows them more access to smells. Studies have shown that a longer leash encourages up to 300% more sniffing, a behavior which actively lowers their pulse rate. As an added bonus, a longer leash may also lead to less pulling as most pets only pull to get slightly ahead to the next tree or patch of grass to smell which may be just further than a 6 foot leash allows. See how this works here.
- If your dog likes to chase things and you aren’t up for that activity check out toys like flirt poles which are essentially large cat toys for dogs. These toys allow you to play indoors or in your yard without having to exert much energy of your own. These toys are also useful if your dog doesn’t know how to fetch. This is my favorite brand of flirt pole.
Safe Personal Space
In the past several months, with the covid-19 pandemic, many pets have lost their usual personal space and downtime. Because of this I have received an increase in calls about new problem behaviors. As boring as it sounds to us, our adult dogs need at least 16 hours of sleep per day and many of them were used to getting it while you were at work or your kids were at school. Give them a dedicated space to relax and leave them alone when they are in it. Consider this for when you have guests over too. A dog who has a place to go that is safe is less likely to display anxious behavior or subsequent aggression if they can not find refuge.
Diet and Supplements
Everything we put in our pets bodies has the potential to affect their behavior. When I consult with my clients on any behavior issue I always ask about their diet and how they are eating. While there aren’t enough studies on diet and behavior, I have seen some problem behaviors disappear on their own after simple changes to diet and routine. It is especially concerning if the dog or cat food has too many sugary fillers (corn, wheat, barley, potato, tapioca), low quality or questionable protein sources (meat meal, by-product meals), artificial colors and synthetic preservatives like (BHA/BHT). If the pet isn’t eating their food consistently that is yet another clue something may be wrong. Because pets don’t clearly communicate internal distress like digestive issues and allergies, it may be wise to consider a vet consult or look to a local pet retailer for suggestions on diet change.
There are numerous dog foods on the market but we have a few favorites
- Kibble: (Canine Caviar and Farmina)
- Canned: (Weruva, Farmina, and Ziwi Peak)
- Raw: (Small Batch, Cali Raw, and Steve’s Pet Food, Honest Kitchen)
- Lightly cooked (Farmers Dog, Just Food for Dogs, Home Cooked Food)
When considering dietary supplementation for anxiety in pets you have several safe options.
- All Paws Essentials Pet CBD is my first mention because I have several first hand reports from pet owners that it has helped tremendously. I also get to see how the product is made from start to finish. The company was started after I witnessed a drastic turn around in pets with noise phobia around the 4th of July. Many owners also report reduced social anxiety and improved behavior during travel or grooming visits. All Paws Essentials Pet CBD is also very safe with little to no negative side effects and a natural way to help your anxious pets feel better.
- L-theanine is a powdered amino acid derived from green tea leaves. It is another safe option you may consider adding to your pet’s diet for reduced anxiety.
- L-trypophan is another amino acid with calming effects. It is present in meats like turkey and is often found in over the counter calming chews for pets.
- Passion Flower is growing in popularity and a favorite among herbalists for its calming effects. It may lower blood pressure in high doses so use sparingly at first to make sure your pet tolerates it well. I have had success with this herb myself.
- Valerian is a mild pain reliever and sedative that may reduce anxiety in pets. It is also very common in calming treats and supplements for pets. Warning: While this herb is effective when it works, it may have a paradoxical effect on some pets, increasing the anxious behavior. If you notice this please discontinue use of the product.
- Chamomile which most of us have had in our tea is another safe option to consider. You may find this in some calming agents but it is generally a complimentary supplement. I wouldn’t expect it to do too much on its own without other constituents along with it.
- DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) can often calm dogs down by synthetically mimicking a natural pheromone found in lactating mother dogs. click here to learn more.
- Essential oils are sometimes very useful if diffused or rubbed on the neck and ears of your pets. Click here to learn more.
Cool Tools and Ideas to Help Your Anxious Pets
These are a few other options you might also consider for your pet who suffers from anxiety or fear issues.
- White noise machine: This can be very helpful to block out sounds that may predict changes in the environment. I had a client who used Alexa to play white noise for their puppy who wouldn’t sleep in her crate. Adding white noise allowed the puppy to relax and pay less attention the the sounds of the family around her.
- Thunder Shirt: Thunder Shirts are a compression wrap that helps many pets cope with fears and anxieties. ThunderShirt is a component of T-Touch, a massage technique for horses and dogs.
- Calmz: This is a unique device that your dog can wear in a vest which plays faint classical music and offers pre programmed vibration settings on pressure points to calm our pet down. Remember to follow the instructions and introduce this product slowly just like any new outfit or hardware. See Calmz here.
While many of my clients try to avoid pharmaceutical intervention, in my experience it is often essential for some pets. With conditions like noise sensitivity that can generalize very quickly and separation anxiety which can be severe, veterinarian prescribed behavioral medication may help you stop the behaviors’ progression while you figure out a plan of attack.
Some common behavioral medications may include:
These medications are designed to regulate levels of specific neurotransmitters such as dopamine, seratonin, nor-epinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA among others.
Like I mentioned, oftentimes medication is only temporary as many owners discontinue use after the problem behavior extinguishes. If your veterinarian isn’t comfortable or familiar with behavior medication, consider consulting with a veterinary behaviorist in your area. These are veterinarians with an added degree in animal behavior. They are usually a little more expensive and generally booked out a bit longer but can be extremely helpful for severe cases. Veterinary Behaviorists can work directly with your veterinarian too often with not additional charge to you. It is however helpful to provide video and written documentation to help the process. A write up from a behavior consultant like myself will also aid the veterinarians in their diagnosis and treatment.
Finding solutions for your pet’s anxieties can be challenging but as you can see there we have more tools and knowledge on the topic than ever before. With the right help early on you may find simple changes to environment and routine make a big difference in how to help your anxious pets. If you’re not sure if your pet is anxious or you would like more information please reach out to us as we would love to help. Until then, be well and wag tail!