Anxiety- and Behaviour-Related Conditions in Pets

By April 20, 2021 Our Blog

Just like people, pets can suffer from anxiety. Also like us, pets can sometimes become anxious now and then, but if the event or trigger that makes a pet anxious happens frequently, it can lead to an anxiety disorder. And unfortunately, sometimes all it takes is one event or instance to cause ongoing anxiety in dogs and cats.

Understanding Anxiety

Pets experience anxiety when they anticipate a threat based on something negative that happened in the past (or is continuing to happen). The trigger could be anything that frightened them or caused pain or trauma. Pets with anxiety then fear the same thing happening again (similar to posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in people).

Some cases of anxiety can be clearly linked to specific events, such as a dog being frightened by fireworks, whereas others may not have an immediately obvious cause, like a cat who stops using the litterbox. Anxiety in pets, regardless of the cause, will often result in changes in behaviour or behavioural problems. These behaviours can get worse if the underlying cause of anxiety isn’t addressed.

Fortunately, veterinary medicine offers many options for treating anxiety in dogs and cats.

Causes of Anxiety

Some pets may be predisposed to having anxiety because of breed, other genetic factors, or previous life experiences, especially experiences that may have occurred during crucial development stages when they were young. Size may also play a role in anxiety in dogs specifically: Smaller dogs may be more anxious than larger ones.

Many cases of anxiety are fear based. Pets can be frightened of loud or startling noises, such as fireworks, thunder, gunshots, or cars backfiring; specific situations, such as going for a car ride, visiting the vet clinic, or being in a crowd; surfaces like grass or a slippery floor; objects, such as an umbrella, hat, sunglasses, or vacuum; new situations; or even unfamiliar people or pets.

Anxiety can have many other causes as well, such as:

  • Underlying disease or painful conditions, such as osteoarthritis (OA), dental disease, dermatologic (skin) disorders, or thyroid disease
  • Mental disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Neurologic (nervous system) issues
  • Infectious disease or exposure to a toxic substance
  • Changes associated with aging, such as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS, which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in humans) or loss of sight or hearing
  • Changes in routine, like family members suddenly being home more or going back to work after being home for an extended period
  • Changes in the environment, like moving to a new home or furniture being rearranged
  • Additions to the household, such as a new pet or baby
  • Death of another pet or family member
  • Lack of or poor socialization
  • Too much attention (particularly for some cats)
  • Past trauma or abuse
  • Neglect or a history of abandonment
  • Being rehomed or having multiple owners (common in shelter pets)

Some of these causes can lead to separation anxiety, which is extreme stress and the resulting behaviour that a pet who is overly attached to his or her owner exhibits when separated from the owner. It’s important to note that separation anxiety is not as common as many think, and some of the associated behaviours may also be signs of medical conditions or other behaviour issues. A pet with true separation anxiety experiences overwhelming distress every time the owner isn’t around and will not relax until reunited with the owner.

Pets may seem anxious for no obvious reason, but for pets with anxiety, the cause of their fear is real to them.

Signs of Anxiety

Symptoms of anxiety in pets can be wide-ranging and may include:

  • Hiding or withdrawing from family interaction
  • Following family members around the home/demanding constant attention
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Restlessness
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Excessive drooling or salivation
  • Excessive vocalization (barking, whining, whimpering, yowling, meowing)
  • Overgrooming
  • Hot spots, sores, or bald patches (from overgrooming)
  • Urinating or defecating in the home or outside the litterbox
  • Diarrhoea or anal gland expression
  • Eating their own poop
  • Appetite or weight change
  • Disinterest in food/refusal to eat
  • Lack of energy or enthusiasm (lethargy)
  • Premature greying (especially on the muzzle)
  • Aggression
  • Trying to escape from their crate, a room, or the house
  • Destructive behaviour, such as chewing furniture, walls, curtains, or clothing or clawing at/scratching doors, windows, or walls
  • Self-harming behaviour, such as tail chewing

If your pet “acts out” or starts displaying an odd or “bad” behaviour, please don’t assume your pet is just misbehaving. Let us know so we can figure out what’s going on and help you both.

Diagnosis of Anxiety

Because anxiety and behaviour-related conditions in pets can have many causes, and behaviour issues can be complex, we will first need to rule out diseases and other medical issues that could be to blame. To do that, your Vedder Mountain veterinarian will ask you questions about your pet’s history to find out what signs you’ve noticed and if your pet tends to show them at certain times. In addition, your veterinarian will perform a physical exam, as well as run blood, urine, and possibly other tests.

Even “poor manners” or “bad behaviour,” such as stealing food, jumping up, chewing on clothing, or urinating or defecating in the house, could actually be related to anxiety or a medical condition.

Treatment of Anxiety

Fortunately, we have many options to help treat anxiety in pets.

Providing a predictable daily routine and using reward-based training, rather than punishment, may be effective in treating certain anxiety and behaviour-related conditions.

Pets with severe anxiety, such as separation anxiety or other phobias, may require more intensive intervention, including desensitization and counterconditioning, whereas pets with more mild forms of anxiety may respond well to positive reinforcement and pheromone-based sprays and plug-in diffusers. At Vedder Mountain Veterinary Clinic, we also use various prescription drugs for management of anxiety and behavioural issues.

Not all pets who are destructive or bark or whine incessantly when owners leave the home have true separation anxiety. Some pets may get uncomfortable being alone (sometimes called “isolation distress”), and some could just be bored. Exercise and play can be helpful in these cases, although first determining whether the cause is just boredom or true separation anxiety (or a medical condition) is essential. We can offer suggestions to help keep your pet entertained while you’re away or provide advice and other assistance if your pet is suffering from separation anxiety.

Some medical conditions that have behavioural components, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can also be treated with prescription medications as well as behaviour therapy and environmental modifications. Medication, pheromone-based products, and environmental modifications can help with aging-related changes as well. Behaviours such as aggression or marking in male pets can often be greatly improved by neutering.

If you’re concerned about your pet’s anxiety or behaviour, make an appointment today. We can also give you recommendations to help prevent certain kinds of anxiety in the first place.

Our clinic is feline friendly, with a separate waiting area for cats that can help keep them calmer during veterinary visits.

If you’re stressed about bringing your pet in for an exam, let us know. We’ll help make sure you and your pet both have a calmer, more relaxed veterinary visit.

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