Managing your pets’ anxiety
The holiday season is fast approaching and while for many people that means spending more time at home with your furry friends, it also means that your and your pets’ routine is about to change. Perhaps extended family are coming to visit (or you and your pets are going away to visit them). If so, more people (potentially strangers) will be in your pets’ space; there will be more noise and longer days of visiting. Your pets are even sensitive enough to detect any changes in family dynamics – especially around holiday time!
All of this, as well as the danger of the loud noises and bright lights of fireworks and thunderstorms, mean that your pets may get anxious. Mild anxiety may be easily overcome with reassurance from you, but for many pets, anxiety can feel like the end of their world. Here’s what you can do when pets are suffering from anxiety.
What are the signs your pets are anxious?
Dogs are quick to explicitly show how they are feeling. If you have an anxious dog, you will immediately notice some or all of the signs:
- whale eyes with their ears pressed back
- snappiness or even aggression
- urination or defecation in the house
- tucked tail
Different dogs will display different types of anxious behaviour. It’s important to notice whether your dog’s behaviour is out of the ordinary during an anxious episode. Is your normally indifferent dog now very needy and unable to leave you alone? Maybe they are hypervigilant and sensitive to even the smallest changes or movement in the room. You’ll notice when your pup is acting out of sorts.
Cats may show similar signs of anxiety and will display behaviours such as:
- excessive grooming
- vocalising (mewling or growling)
- dilated pupils/hypervigilance
- excessive licking of the nose
- rapid breathing
- pica (eating things that are not food)
What causes pets to become anxious?
When your pet has a consistent routine and a predictable environment, they are calm and confident because they know what to expect. When new variables are introduced to their comfortable routine, they may become anxious because suddenly they don’t know what to expect. Things feel unpredictable and scary, which can be perceived as physically threatening.
If your quiet home is filled with new people during holiday time, your cat may feel like she’s lost control of her environment, or your dog may feel unsure of how to behave, who needs protecting, and how to deal with new people. Pets may feel overwhelmed by new stimuli, especially if they are approached by pet-friendly strangers who want to pet and engage with them. Sometimes even the most socialised pets will become anxious by this.
Loud noises – whether from fireworks, Christmas crackers, or jovial socialising – can be very scary to your extra sound-sensitive pet. Pets can be photosensitive too, which, coupled with loud noises, can be particularly fear-inducing for your dog or cat.
How do you calm a fearful dog?
From as early on as possible, puppies need to be socialised with as many different people and animals as possible in a range of different environments. Ultimately, this will help them to build confidence and not be so fearful of new situations, people and other pets. That being said, even the most well-socialised animals can still experience anxiety in unpredictable situations. The following solutions can help to decrease their anxiety levels:
Take them out of the stressful environment
If you’re having a dinner party, remove your dog to another room, away from the noise and lights, and give him a chew toy or a comforting plushie. If he’s trained, give him the ‘place’ command and reward him with some treats for going to his bed.
Do a quick training routine
With a handful of treats, give your dog the ‘sit’ command and reward him. ‘Down’, ‘stay’ and other behavioural commands with rewards for obedience can completely change your dog’s demeanour and bring him out of his anxious state.
Don’t reward the stress
It’s important to give your dog a job to do (‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘paw’) before giving him treats as a comfort for his anxiety. By giving him treats or a toy without a command, it could be seen as rewarding the anxiety, which can become problematic in the long run.
Exercise and play
If you’re anticipating your pup getting anxious around the guests and noise, spend some time exercising and playing with him earlier in the day. Pent-up energy can worsen the effects of anxiety, so tire him out first. The serotonin from the enjoyment of playtime can help your dog to relax. If your dog is nervous and withdrawn while your guests are around, spend time playing with him afterwards to get rid of his anxious energy.
Pheromones in the environment
Calming collars, diffusers, sprays, gels and tablets can help to regulate your dog’s anxiety with the distribution of pheromones. If you’re anticipating a large dinner party, family members coming to stay, or a fireworks display, start giving your dog pheromone therapy for a week or two in advance. This can help to keep him calm when these holiday events arise.
Dogs respond well to calming music – classical music works exceptionally well and can be used to calm a dog down ahead of time or during an anxiety-inducing event.
If you’re anticipating a thunderstorm or fireworks and you know your dog is going to be terrified, try a desensitisation strategy a few weeks in advance. Play the sounds of a thunderstorm – quietly at first and gradually increase the volume over time (hours or days) as your dog does not display signs of anxiety. If he becomes aware of the sounds, reward him with a treat or playtime – this will help to change his response to the noise. Done thoughtfully and consistently, desensitisation can offer your dog relief from the anxiety associated with loud noises.
If your dog is extremely anxious and shuts down completely or is uncontrollably stressed, arrange a visit with the vet to address the problem. Make a note of all the strategies you’ve adopted that have not been effective. The vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication and suggest behaviour therapy and counter-conditioning with a behavioural specialist.
How can you help your cat with anxiety?
Cats can do equally well with socialisation and exposure to different people and animals. However, cats – more so than dogs – are either sociable or more independent and will choose when they prefer the company of others (or not). If your cat is anxious when there are lots of people around and especially lots of noise, try some or all of the following to relieve her anxiety:
Take her to a safe space
If you often find your cat hiding in the linen cupboard or behind the couch when you have company over, it should give you an indication that she needs a safe space away from the crowds and the noise. Provide a comfy cat ‘cave’ if your cat likes to hide; or a tall cat tree or window perch if she likes to be away from the party, but to still observe her surrounds.
Exercise and play
Engage your cat’s hunting instincts with a feather toy, laser pointer, wind-up mouse or catnip toy. This will encourage engagement with reward-based behaviours, which help to reduce her anxiety.
Keep the litterbox clean
Some cats’ anxiety is elevated by a soiled litterbox. Double up on the frequency of scooping the litterbox or even put out another litterbox just in case.
As with dogs, cats may respond well to the relaxing effect of pheromone diffusers, sprays, food additives and tablets.
From catnip to CBD oil and valerian herbal remedies – there are a range of natural remedies that can help to calm down anxious cats. Speak to the vet about which remedy could be most effective for your cat. Be very careful of essential oil diffusers, as these may release fumes that are toxic to pets.
Like dogs, cats also have super-sensitive hearing, and respond positively to soft, calming music. When playing music to counter the effects of thunderstorms or fireworks, also close the curtains and make sure your cat’s environment is safe and muted.
If your cat does not seem to be responding positively to your anti-anxiety efforts, schedule a visit to the veterinarian to discuss possible solutions. The vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication, but a long-term strategy will need to be devised to reduce your cat’s anxiety in a healthy way, and increase your cat’s quality of life in the long run.
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