ANXIETY IN PETS
helping your pets cope with stress
Anxiety is unfortunately a common problem in our pets.
It may stem from several causes. It may simply be a pet’s personality to be more fearful, perhaps a pet was not properly or fully socialized as a young animal, perhaps they do not get enough stimulation from their environment, or they may have experienced a trauma of some sort. Sometimes they are anxious because we, their families, are anxious.
Regardless of the cause of a pet’s fear or anxiety, there are things we can do to improve, or worsen, the behavior.
One of the worst things we do as owners is to unintentionally reinforce the behavior. We may mean well, but when we try to soothe or calm our pet, we are telling them their current behavior is good. Because we are providing them with positive feedback, they will repeat the behavior and possibly even amplify it.
A classic example is a dog afraid of storms.
If we hug them and tell them it will be OK, they note the positive attention and fall into the behavior more readily the next time the same situation presents itself. As a result, a positive feedback loop is created. The better way to handle this situation is to provide the pet a safe place to lay low, like a dark kennel, basement, closet, under a table or even at your feet, perhaps with a Thundershirt on. But from there, once they have their safe place, its best to ignore the behavior completely. Medications can help if the behavior is extreme, but we still should follow the same routine.
This points out the most difficult part of understanding animal behavior:
It is hard for people to see things from the animal perspective. We get upset with our dog barking at the mailman through the window, so we yell at them from the other room to stop barking. The mailman delivers the mail and goes away. From the dog’s perspective this is a daily triumph. He does his job by sounding the alarm, everyone else joins in the yelling too (isn’t this fun?!) and the potential threat is chased away by all our yelling. Success!
Some breeds were made to work, but they end up living sedentary lives in homes with too little exercise and mental stimulation. This can lead to bad behaviors and anxiety. Anxiety has so many potential causes and there are so many ways these problems need to be addressed.
The most important thing to know is that medication alone will never fix a pet's behavioral problem.
Training is also not the only answer. Sending your pet to be trained by someone else may do even more damage. We first have to understand, to the best of our ability, the underlying problem and then change the environment, routine and reinforcements that currently exist. Then we can gradually and gently teach the pet new responses to the situation that upsets them.
Medication can help pet anxiety, but it is a small piece of the puzzle.
Often a fair amount of time and energy is needed from the owner. The results can be dramatic, however, and everyone ends up happier. The sooner intervention happens, the better our chances at success and your pet can live a much more relaxed life.