Does your dog or cat suffer from anxiety? Many people don’t realise that their pet has this issue. Watch the video above to find out if this could be a problem in your household.
The problem of anxiety in pets
Animals can be just as prone to stress, worry and anxiety as humans. After years of stating that animals were automatons, without emotions, mainstream science has finally accepted that the mental lives of animals are far more similar to humans than many people would like to accept.
On July 7, 2012, a panel of experts at an international gathering in Cambridge University made a formal announcement: the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals”. This states that the key differences in human and animal brains, found mainly in the frontal cortex, do not play a role in the specific phenomenon known as “consciousness”. The more primitive parts of the brains of humans and mammals are equally well developed, and consciousness “happens” in these areas. While it’s true that our extra-developed frontal cortex allows us to reflect on our lives in more detail, consciously planning for tomorrow in a way that animals are unable to do, scientists now believe that animals share a moment-to-moment awareness of life in a way that’s very similar to humans.
What does this mean when it comes to anxiety? While animals are unable to worry about what’s going to happen (e.g. they have no concept of future events in the same way as us), they are just as likely as we are to feel stressed and anxious about difficult social situations that are currently going on around them.
Anxiety is a strong emotion that causes many pets to suffer from distress.
Sometimes the signs of anxiety are subtle:
- a cat may dart out of the room whenever a boisterous terrier comes in
- a cat may hide under a chair or behind furniture when visitors call
- a cat might growl continually while eating their dinner because they are anxious about other cats in the house being too close to them for their comfort
- a dog might lick their lips repeatedly when a thunderstorm is brewing outside
- a dog may pant continuously during a car journey
- a dog may tremble nervously in a vet’s waiting room.
At other times, the physical signs of anxiety are impossible to ignore:
- when a cat lives in fear that a bully cat outside is going to pounce on her, she may start to “do her business” inside the house, on the carpets.
- when some dogs are left on their own, they become so over-wrought with “separation anxiety” that they attempt to distract themselves by carrying out distressing behaviours. This can be as mild as howling and barking, or as severe as chewing up furniture and biting holes in the walls of the room.
- some dogs have anxiety that’s provoked by noise, such as fireworks, thunder or gunshot. They can show all of the same signs as a dog with full on separation anxiety.
- anxiety can also cause pets to be aggressive to other pets or even to people
Sometimes anxiety can even cause animals to have physical signs of illness.
- In cats, one of the common ways that this occurs is over-grooming. Cats seem to gain some sort of reassurance from grooming themselves: perhaps they feel that even though the world is a frightening place, at least they can safely carry out this simple, useful task. I’ve heard it said that the motto of many cats could be: “if you’re not sure what to do, groom yourself”. There’s no harm in a little extra grooming, but some cats get so carried away with this that they can literally lick the fur off themselves. They can end up with red, sore skin, and areas of baldness.
- Cats that are feeling stressed are also prone to cystitis, having urine accidents around the home.
- Dogs can also react to stress and anxiety by licking and chewing themselves. The classic example is a condition called a “lick granuloma”. This starts off as a mildly red area of skin, but by repeatedly licking this, dogs can cause a large nodule to appear. It often resembles a small tumour, but if the dog can be persuaded to stop licking the area (eg with a plastic collar), it will often go completely back to normal within a couple of weeks.
- If an anxious pet has physical signs like these, then it’s important that they are taken to the vet for a physical check up
What can be done to help anxious pets?
The best answer is to address the cause of the anxiety.
- If a cat is over-stressed because there are too many cats in your home, you may need to consider finding new homes for some of them.
- If your dog suffers from severe separation anxiety when he’s left alone, you need to work with a behavioural specialist to develop ways of getting him used to being on his own.
Products that can help:
Plug in diffusers can be used to instill calming vapours into the air around the pet. There are two formulations:
Herbal diffusers – these contain natural scents (like Valerian) that have been shown to make pets feel calmer and less agitated
Specific behavioural interventions can often help, depending on the cause of the anxiety:
- 1) Special cat furniture to make a home more cat-friendly (cat trees etc)
- 2) Cat grass for cats that are not allowed outside at all
- 3) A microchip enabled cat flap to stop a bully cat from coming into a house
- 4) Brown paper screening on the lower parts of windows to stop bully cats from staring at cats indoors
- 5) If a dog is anxious about going to the vet, then regular short trips for just treats and praise from the vet clinic staff can help a lot (I have a story of an example)
- 6) Sound therapy can help pets that are anxious about noise (recordings of noises like storms and fireworks can be downloaded and played to pets at low volumes to get them used to it)
- 7) Food releasing chew toys for dogs to burn up mental energy or olive sticks or Kong toys or bamboo chew toys.
When is the vet needed?
In severe cases, prescription-only anti-anxiety drugs (similar to those used in humans) can be very helpful. A stressed-out hyperactive animal can be in a permanently heightened state of anxiety. Medication can be useful to bring the animal back to a relaxed frame of mind, and as long as the original cause of stress is dealt with, many pets will remain calm as the medication is gradually stopped. These can only be used under close veterinary supervision: it’s dangerous to give human medication to pets.
If you have an over-anxious pet, send a message to me via the Ask A Vet tool on Petfix, or talk to your local vet for professional help