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Tackling Anxiety in Dogs & Cats

Remember COVID? The masks. The 6 foot rule. The plexiglass barriers. The overall fear and uncertainty. In 2020 days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, as more and more people accepted that any chance of seeing friends or family for upcoming celebrations was slim. In that time of unending loneliness and stress, our pets (new and old) stepped up in a big way! They became our source of companionship and we became their whole world.


The beautiful connection so many of us made with our pets during the pandemic spoke wonders about the human-animal bond, but the inability to work on little skills every dog and cat needs might have been more detrimental than we predicted. While our COVID-induced anxiety might be steadily decreasing, that’s not the case for many of our dogs and cats. A study completed in 2022 revealed that dog separation anxiety increased well over 700% in the past two years. The two top fears recorded in the study were fear of loud noises (which increased 295% since 2020) and fear of strangers. Other fears noticed by pet owners include fear of other dogs and cats, fear of novel situations, and separation related anxieties. Overall, according to research done by Guide Dog in 2022, 74% of the nation’s dogs show signs of poor mental health. It’s a complex problem, but one key complicating factor is that many pet owners are either unaware their cat or dog can suffer from mental health issues or are unable to recognize signs of mental health struggles in their pet.


What to Look For


In many cases, the first step to fixing a problem is being able to recognize there is a problem to begin with. It would be too convenient for your cat or dog to stroll up to you one morning and say, “Hey bud, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the little human you recently brought into the house. You know, the one that’s completely overstayed its welcome but still isn’t leaving. I think I’d benefit from a little me-time today. Don’t fret, it’s nothing a little self-care won’t fix.”


No, that would be far too easy. So how do we pick up on our pet’s anxiety “red flags”?


Dogs


In dogs, signs of poor mental health can include destructiveness, hyperactivity or loss of activity, loss of appetite, and excessive barking. Dogs exhibiting such behaviors are generally trying to communicate that they’re bored or frustrated. Unfortunately, if the anxiety is left unaddressed, signs can escalate into freeze, fight, or flight. This is the highest level of anxiety and, ultimately, the most dangerous to the dog and surrounding people or animals. The goal, of course, is to intervene well before this escalation occurs.


Cats


In cats, it’s often much more challenging to correctly identify anxious or bored behaviors in the household setting. Pay special attention to over-grooming or failure to groom, increased vocalization, avoiding eye contact, hiding or uncharacteristic following, improper urination/defecation, and mood swings or unexpected aggression. Additionally, cats are experts when it comes to communicating with body language: crouching, flattening ears, staring (especially with dilated pupils), slinking, and tail flicking are all stubble indications your cat may be feeling anxious.


Just like dogs, anxiety in cats can escalate to the more commonly recognized presentation of growing, hissing, lunging, and biting; these are characteristics of the “fight” level of anxiety (or seconds before). Again, intervention prior to this level of anxiety is key for the pet and family’s safety as well as the overall health of the cat.


A cat with white paws hiding under a bed

But what can be done at this stage? The prime socialization period for puppies is between 3 and 12 weeks of age, with peak importance between weeks 8 and 10. The window for kittens is even smaller, lasting from week 2 to week 7. During this crucial time, social cues and important pack manners are acquired, giving the puppy or kitten a basis for how to manage both routine and stressful interactions for the rest of their lives. Building on that, puppy and kitten classes are so important in the first year of life because it allows the pet’s new family to reinforce good habits and reshape bad ones into something more appropriate. Is that to say that if the first year(s) of training are missed these poor pets are doomed to be anxious animals for the rest of their days?


Fortunately for pet parents, there’s an abundance of tools to manage anxiety! However, the best resource (and one that should be consulted before all the rest), is your family’s veterinarian. The signs of anxiety demonstrated by a dog or cat might indeed indicate a mental health concern, but unfortunately, many of these same signs are commonly seen when there’s an undiagnosed medical condition (ie, endocrine disorders, urinary tract pathology, hypertension, etc). It’s imperative to rule-out any medical cause for your animal’s behavior (especially if it’s recently acquired).


Training & Exercise


The cornerstone of battling anxiety is training combined with physical and mental exercise. If you feel your dog or cat might benefit from professional help, don’t hesitate to investigate training facilities and classes in your area. When considering the facility that’s right for your dog or cat, there are a few things to think about:

  • Is the facility licensed with the state?

  • Are the employed trainers certified? There are multiple certification options for dog trainers, however, none are actually required for someone to claim the title of “Professional Dog Trainer.” Facilities or businesses that employ certified training staff should be considered over businesses that do not.

  • What is the facility’s training philosophy?Avoid trainers and businesses that use negative reinforcement or negative punishment in their training programs. Training should be focused on positive reinforcement to build trust between owner and pet.

  • What do classes look like? Are pet parents involved in the training process full time, part time, or not at all? Depending on your family’s goals, how much time you’re actively training your pet might be the key to success.


Some businesses that advertise training also offer classes and seminars focused on specific skills many dogs (and owners) find mentally stimulating! If your pet has mastered Puppy Obedience, Beginner Obedience, and Advanced Obedience Classes, it might be time to consider specialty classes such as Agility, Rally, Dance, Scent Training, Search and Find, Leash Skills, etc.


If classes aren’t something that could benefit your dog, don’t worry! There are options for dogs who’d prefer gentle exercise at home instead of running through tunnels or playing hide & seek with scents. Consider brain games to stimulate your pet’s mind from the comfort of your living room. Veterinarians and behaviorists have developed countless products for just this situation (see below).


Regardless of what mental and/or physical exercises you feel are best for your pet, variety is key! There’s a good chance you’ll find you don’t actually have to take your dog on a 5 mile run every day to tire out his legs and brain. Instead, try a new activity! When it comes to exercise and training, quality outweighs quantity!


Products


Dogs


A small dog wearing a jacket called a Thundershirt
  • Recommended by trainers and veterinarians, the ThunderShirt® provides gentle and soothing pressure around your dog’s torso, much like a calming hug. This product is shown to improve anxiety issues in over 85% of canine clients.

  • Advertised as “no training required” but what have we learned about training?...It (along with exercise) is the cornerstone in correcting anxiety!

  • Photo taken from official ThunderWorks® website


Adaptil® Collars and Diffusers: https://www.adaptil.com/us

  • Adaptil® Collars – Used and recommended by veterinarians, the Adaptil® Collar offers your pet continuous anti-anxiety support indoors and outdoors as well as during stressful events (ie, fireworks, traveling, boarding, etc). According to the manufacturer, each collar offers 4 weeks of constant support.

  • Adaptil® Diffusers – Designed to offer additional support when stress spikes, the Adaptil® Diffusers can soothe your dog’s anxiety when you welcome visitors, during thunderstorms or fireworks, or when left alone. According to the manufacturer, this product should be plugged in continuously. Expect to refill the diffuser very 6 months to ensure the advertised coverage of 700 sq. ft.


  • Designed for enrichment, soothing anxiety, and overall mental and physical health, LickiMats are veterinary recommended puzzles that contain no silicone or toxic substances. Simply apply a small amount of peanut butter, banana, pumpkin, low-fat yogurt, or one of the many LickiMat recipes and let your dog spend time and energy doing what so many dogs do best: licking until there’s nothing left!

  • Especially beneficial if you need to make the joy of treats last longer. LickiMats allow for more fun with fewer calories.


  • There’s an overwhelming amount of foraging games and puzzles on the market, but a reliable resource when selecting products that fit your dog’s needs is the Pawsitive Pet Behavior, LLC website.

  • Nationally certified by the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, this group has built its philosophy around positive training methods and enrichment to bring out the best in your dog or cat.

Finally, never underestimate the power of a favorite toy, cozy blanket, and kennel. Many dogs seek comfort in a safe space to call their own and a familiar-smelling toy or blankey. However, as with most interventions, this is appropriate for a certain population: dogs that are known shredders can and (often) will take their anxiety out on whatever poor toy or blanket is in reach. The only thing more stressful than fireworks is a foreign body surgery…


Cats


ProPlan Calming Supplement:

  • A simple add-on to your cat’s normal diet, Purina ProPlan’s Calming Care® is a probiotic that helps cats maintain a calm behavior while promoting positive social behaviors (ie, playing, seeking out social contact). This supplement is particularly helpful when there’s a change in the cat’s routine or environment.


A cat wearing a grey jacket called ThunderShirt
  • Recommended by trainers and veterinarians, the ThunderShirt® applies soothing pressure around your cat’s torso. Much like swaddling an infant or reclining under a weighted blanket, this product mimics a safe and calming hug.

  • Photo from official ThunderWorks® website


Feliway Sprays and Diffusers: https://us.feliway.com/

  • Veterinary recommended and used, Feliway® spray is a great way to support your cat during stressful events. Whether it be vet visits, travel, boarding, or a change within the home environment, Feliway® is an affordable option that’s proven to be effective.


A cat licking a teal rubber mat called a LickiMat
  • Designed for enrichment, soothing anxiety, and overall mental and physical health, LickiMats are veterinary recommended puzzles that contain no silicone or toxic substances. Simply apply a small amount of tuna, Churu, or one of the many feline LickiMat recipes to the human-grade rubber surface and let your cat enjoy an enrichment activity that stimulates sight, smell, and taste!

  • Especially beneficial if you need to make the joy of treats last longer. LickiMats allow for more fun with fewer calories.

  • Photo from: https://lickimat.com/pages/picking-the-right-lickimat-cats


  • When it comes to cat enrichment, it’s tough to sort through what options are the most beneficial. One reliable resource is the Pawsitive Pet Behavior, LLC website.

  • Nationally certified by the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, this group has built its philosophy around positive training methods and enrichment to bring out the best in your dog or cat.

Like dogs, don’t underestimate the most basic product: a place your kitty can call its own. Cats in particular love hiding places! Whether it be a box or an all-out cat wall, your feline friends will appreciate being able to demonstrate just how stealthy they can be when feeling overstimulated.


Medications


Finally, last on the list of tools is medications. This isn’t because pharmacological intervention holds no benefit to controlling anxiety- that simply isn’t true. However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation: specific behavior-modifying drugs are intended for specific needs. It’s important to consider whether the anxiety is situational (meaning, it manifests during particularly stressful events such as firework shows, holiday house guests, abrupt changes in routine, etc.) or if it’s something more chronic that requires continuous medical intervention. Discuss the options with your veterinarian! Your doctor will be happy to talk through which medication is right for your pet’s unique situation.


One more time!: Whether the anxiety intervention toolbox you and your veterinarian have packed includes behavior-modifying medication(s), LickiMats, a couple diffusers, and multiple ThunderShirts (because it’s always nice to have back-ups, just in case), the cornerstone to correcting anxiety and other unwanted behavior is, and will always be, training and mental or physical exercise!


References


Guide Dogs encourages enrichment to boost dog mental health. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. March 8, 2022. https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/blog/guide-dogs-encourages-enrichment-to-boost-dog-mental-health.

Pet anxiety surges dramatically during COVID, according to study by Green Element. News release. Green Element. May 31, 2022.

Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Scientific Reports. March 5, 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59837-z.

Study: prevalence of pet anxiety in the US, 2022. Green Element. Accessed May 31, 2022. https://greenelementcbd.com/pages/pet-anxiety-2022.

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