Anxiety is a serious problem in the pet world, made worse because we humans are not very good at recognising and dealing with anxious animals. All too often, we react to the behavioural consequences of anxiety (such as aggression, running away, or barking) as if these are the main problem. If instead, we recognised anxiety as the root cause of many of these problem behaviours, we would be far more likely to have well behaved, calmer, pets.
Definitions are helpful when trying to understand a topic. Anxiety is a feeling of fear or distress which occurs as a normal response to a dangerous or stressful situation, or an abnormal response to a “normal” situation.
Signs of anxiety in humans include trembling, sweating, rapid pulse rate, dry mouth and nausea. We humans know these feelings well. Cats and dogs suffer from anxiety too and they suffer the same physical sensations.
Think about a cat being squashed into a cat carrier, loaded into a car and driven to the vet: they will suffer all of those physical signs, often vocalised in the form of an unhappy miaow. Or consider a cat that starts to urinate inside the house because they are anxious about being attacked by a neighbouring tomcat when they go to the toilet outside. If you see a cat like this outside, they will be tense, shivering, and jumpy: classic signs of anxiety.
Or think about a dog that has spent the past two years with their owner continually beside them during COVID lockdowns. Now that the owner is going to work, the dog is left on their own, and they are not used to this solitude: anxiety is a natural response, and again, the physical signs are the same as those felt by an anxious human. If you watch a dog on a webcam in this situation, you will see pacing, restlessness, panting, and other obvious signs of distress. Fireworks and thunderstorms also cause many pets to feel anxious. Another example would be a dog that has previously been attacked by another dog in the park: they will tremble, put their tail between their legs, and stay close beside their owner if any other dog comes close to them.
The main lesson here is that anxious pets look anxious when you observe them: the body language of anxiety 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 stimulus for anxiety is, in itself, non-threatening (such as a dog being left on their own), avoiding anxiety-creating situations is the easiest way to prevent anxiety.
The next stage is to try to help the pet learn to not be anxious in these situations. This needs the help of a behaviourist and a vet. The general idea is known as “desensitisation and counterconditioning”, jargon that sounds complicated, but is simple when explained.
“Desensitisation” means getting the pet familiar with the anxiety-creating situation by exposing them to very small doses of it (e.g. leaving a pet alone for just a few minutes at first, gradually extending the time on their own by longer as long as they stay calm).
“Counterconditioning” means rewarding the animal with positive experiences when they stay calm and relaxed instead of getting anxious (e.g. giving a dog treats and playing games with them when they stay relaxed after being left on their own).
The general idea is that pets can be taught not to feel anxious over time.
There are many cases where the anxiety is so intense that animals feel too panicky to even begin the process of desensitisation. That’s when anti-anxiety medication is useful. A number of licensed products are now available from vets for anxious pets, including tablets (the equivalent of 'Prozac' for pets), and pheromones (plug-in vaporisers that help pets to feel calm). These extra tools are used to keep pets calm enough that they can learn to cope with anxiety-creating situations: once they have been desensitised using these artificial crutches, they are then better able to cope on their own, gradually being weaned off the products.
Treatment of anxiety can be challenging, time-consuming and expensive. So it makes far more sense to prevent anxiety in pets from developing in the first place. And this is surprisingly easy to do when you know-how.
The key is to recognise that dogs and cats have a “sensitive socialisation period” when they are able to learn to accept new experiences without fear. This lasts from three – nine weeks in kittens, and three – 14 weeks in dogs. Animal breeders should be aware that they need to give young pets positive experiences of a range of situations during this time frame: from meeting a wide range of people (eg babies, men with beards, women wearing hats) and animals (huge dogs, tiny dogs, etc), to hearing a range of different noises (eg soundtracks of fireworks and storms), to being exposed to different situations (eg travelling in a car, spending time in a carrier, etc). Better socialisation at a young age correlates well with older animals being less anxious. This is one of the main reasons why pups from puppy farms are often more nervous adult animals: they are commonly poorly socialised when young.
Anxiety is an unpleasant emotion for pets just as much for people: do your best to prevent it, and make sure that if your pet does feel anxious, you take the right steps to help them.