Why is my pet so anxious? And what can I do about it? Doctor Radio is here to help

Anyone with an anxious pet is relieved that July 4th fireworks are done for the year. But other loud noises — thunder, sirens, garbage trucks — plus separation issues continue to provoke howls, cries and scratching. Doctor Radio spoke with animal behavior expert Dr. Julie Albright about anxiety in pets and what we can do to help our furry companions.

Why do pets experience anxiety from noises like thunderstorms or fireworks?
Thunderstorms and fireworks may be more of an issue than other loud noises (e.g. pots dropping, sirens, garbage trucks) for a few reasons. First of all, the constant repetition means adrenaline and cortisol levels remain high. That may be why the animals become more sensitized to these sounds as opposed to the other environmental noises which they seem to “get over” with repeated exposure. No visual confirmation of the source of the noise may also be a factor.

What are other common triggers of anxiety in pets?
Separation from people is also a common source of fear. Poorly socialized animals (e.g animals that did not have good exposure to environmental stimuli during their proper socialization development period — 4-14 weeks for dogs, 2-7 weeks for cats) or animals that had an averse experience with a certain stimulus can become fearful of anything. Men, children and delivery people are very common triggers. “Anxiety” and “aggression” are often spoken about as two different issues, but fear and anxiety is the underlying cause of the vast majority of aggressive episodes.

How effective are vests or other gadgets to help prevent animal anxiety?
Pressure wraps can be effective in lowering heart rate and through biofeedback, help the animal feel calmer. Because of the low side effect risk, I often recommend giving these products a try. The highest success rate seems to be in mild to moderate cases.

What are signs a pet is having a hard time emotionally?
Most dog owners can recognize the whining/barking, pacing, panting, excessive salivation, dilated eyes, urination/defecation or escaping that accompanies a very fearful dog. Milder stress behaviors include out of context yawning, lip licking, grooming and other “fidgeting” behaviors

How can owners help manage a pet’s anxiety?
First talk to your vet about medical complications. Everything from cancer and orthopedic pain to the discomfort of mild dental disease can be a factor in fear and anxiety behaviors. Next I recommend consulting a respected behavior professional who understands the difference between changing behavior and changing emotion. Board-certified veterinary behaviorists can help with all behavioral and medical therapies. Another group of professionals to consider are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist to gain solid behavior modification help.

Since loud noises of summer are inevitable, can anything be done to try to limit the amount of anxiety an animal feels?
Creating a safe zone with white noise and other items the pet considers calming and enjoyable such as food-stuffed toys, classical music and lavender.

Are there any risks of ignoring an animal’s anxiety?
There is a common belief that paying attention to an animal during times of stress will only reinforce that anxious behavior and that ignoring the animal is best. There are some important factors to consider when trying to determine how to respond. First of all, how panicked is the pet? During a true panic attack, I recommend doing whatever you can – wrapping the animal in a blanket, massage, keeping gentle but firm control with a head halter and leash – to physically calm the animal. If an animal is only mildly stressed or even in a good emotional state and the owner gives the animal a Kong, allows it to snuggle on the bed or gives the animal whatever he wanted while he was barking or doing some other obnoxious behavior, then the behavior will get reinforced. When in doubt, try response substitution or getting the dog to do another acceptable behavior such an obedience cue for a good try. You’ll reinforce a more acceptable behavior while helping the dog focus on something else.

Dr. Albright is an assistant professor of Veterinary Behavior and the PetSafe Chair of Small Animal Behavioral Research at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Catch Doctor Radio’s Pets And Your Health show the first Tuesday of every month at 6 am ET and 4 pm ET, then again Friday at 4 am ET and Saturday at 6 am ET.

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Photo by Ryan McGuire

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