Animal Anxieties

“Jake” my 2-year-old Border Collie was born with anxiety. Certain breeds of dogs may have a genetic predisposition for fear, despite their upbringing. Jake’s fears being left alone. He has what is known as separation anxiety.

I attempted to crate train Jake as a pup as I have done with all my dogs. He was my first dog to bark incessantly for three hours the first night I put him in the crate. He also managed to bend the doors and escape from his crate every time I left for work. I would come home to find him loose and something destroyed. We finally figured out the best way to calm his fears was to put him in the giant crate with Maizy our 85-pound easygoing Golden Doodle. He feels a sense of comfort being with another dog just so he is not alone. He sticks to me like glue when he is with me, follows me from room to room and sleeps by my side. He is one of the most loyal dogs with his anxieties and all.

Many dogs have separation anxiety. Commonly this occurs in dogs that have become overly attached to their owners. Signs include panting and pacing as the owner is getting ready to leave, destruction of items in the house, howling and whining while the owner is away, or over-grooming and chewing of the feet or nails. One way to deter this behavior is to discourage the over-attachment to one person. Attempt to have other people in the household help care for and play with the dog. Give the dog attention only on the owner’s terms. Also attempt to desensitize the pet to leaving by doing things that you would normally do at different times of the day. This might include jingling your keys or getting ready in the bathroom. Try to make your pet’s stay alone a positive stay. Give them things to do to keep them distracted. Hollow Kongs with treats stuffed inside are a good distraction. Play calming music or keep the television on while you are away. By creating a calm environment with some distractions you may help to deter this behavior.

Storm phobia is another anxiety common to many dogs, especially this time of the year! Storm phobias may elicit escape behaviors sometimes leading to injury, trembling, vocalizing, pacing, and panting. Ways to help dogs with this fear are to desensitize them to the situation. This might include picking up a nature CD of a thunderstorm and playing it continuously. Stay calm and give the dog treats and praise when they finally calm down. Other options include purchasing sound proof items such as “storm muffs” for your dog’s ears or “thunder huts” to cover up your dog’s crate. Try to make a comfortable place for them with shades over the windows to help them stay calm during a storm. Also available are “thunder shirts” or “anxiety wraps”. These are snug fitting shirts to put on the dog that may help calm the animal during one of these events.

Noise phobias may be a reaction to fireworks, gun shots or thunder during a storm. Many dogs have this phobia concurrently with storm phobia. Desensitizing the dog to the noises is again a way to deter this behavior. Find recordings of noisy situations and play them at a low volume. Give your pet praise and treats. Wait a day before trying it again. Increase the volume each time you play it and make it a calm and positive experience for your pet. Finally on holidays like the 4th of July it is best just to avoid the situation entirely. Do not take your dog to fireworks. Dogs have very sensitive ears and it may be best to just leave them at home in a quiet place or board them somewhere away from where the fireworks will be.

The above situations mostly pertain to our canine friends – a quick note about our feline friends and their fears.

Probably the most common fear kitties have is coming to see the veterinarian! Cats like a routine and anything out of that normal routine may create intense fear. Usually this begins with just the ride in the carrier.

Again I believe in desensitizing the animal.. Bring the carrier out on days you will not be taking them to the vet. Put treats, food, and a cozy bed in the carrier. Start taking your cat for short rides: even just around the block and back home again. Increase the length of the trip each time giving treats and toys in the carrier. Finally ask your veterinarian if you can bring your cat in for a quick visit and then take him home. It can be a positive experience of just getting a back scratch and then leaving. I encourage this with dogs as well. If an animal is afraid of coming to the vet, bring the pet in often for just a visit and some treats. It doesn’t calm a dog’s fears when all we do is shine lights in their faces, poke them with needles, and stick things in their ears and hind end! Be sure to call us ahead of time for the best time to bring your pet in just for a positive visit!

These fears may at some point need medical intervention. There are natural supplements and dog pheromones available for purchase that may help with these fears. There are also short and longer acting anxiolytic medications that will help to deter the behaviors. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation for your pet. Finally some dogs may need a consult with a veterinary behaviorist. In our area a behaviorist is hard to find but we will help you every step of the way to help you and your pet. We always advocate for the pet’s health; calming anxieties gives animals a much better quality of life!

Dr. Rebekah Frosts writes monthly for the OBSERVER. Send comments to lifestyles@observertoday.com