Pets can experience anxiety for many reasons, which must be addressed to prevent behavioral problems and potential health complications. Your pet’s responses are relative to their perceptions, whether or not an actual threat is present. Affected pets can exhibit unwanted behaviors and may develop gastrointestinal upset or feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), and other conditions. Our Groves Veterinary Clinic team provides information about how anxiety affects pets and how these conditions are addressed.

Fear-related anxiety in pets

Many pets experience fear-related anxiety in response to loud noises, strange people or animals, and specific situations, with fireworks and thunderstorms the most common noise phobias. Signs typically include excessive panting, attempts to hide or escape, vocalization, and potentially inappropriate urination or defecation. Your pet will exhibit these signs only when the triggering noise or event occurs. Methods to address fear-related anxiety include:

  • Environmental modification — For mildly affected pets, environmental modification can help when you can anticipate the triggering event. For instance, if your pet is afraid of thunder, and an afternoon storm is forecast, you can sequester them in an interior room and play music or white noise to dampen the thunder. You can also offer a food-puzzle toy or other distraction to move their attention away from the storm.
  • Avoidance — When possible, identify the triggering cause, and avoid situations that cause your pet fear and anxiety.
  • Behavioral modification — You can use techniques to desensitize your pet to the triggering stimuli and countercondition them to change their response. For example, if fireworks trigger your pet’s anxiety, play recorded firework noise at a low level while you play with or feed your pet. Increase the volume incrementally over several sessions until they associate the noise with something favorable. 
  • Medications — Anti-anxiety medications, preferably given before the triggering event, suppress activity in your pet’s central nervous system and may help. 
  • Prevention — Exposing your pet to numerous sounds, sights, and situations when they are young can help prevent fear-related anxiety.

Separation anxiety in pets

Pets affected by separation anxiety become extremely agitated and distressed when left alone or separated from their primary caregiver. Pets may become anxious when their owner’s activities, such as putting on their shoes or picking up their keys, signal their imminent departure. Signs usually include excessive vocalization, inappropriate elimination, escape attempts to follow the owner, and destructive behavior. Methods to address separation anxiety include:

  • Provide enrichment — Provide adequate physical exercise to work off your pet’s excess energy, and ensure they are mentally stimulated to prevent boredom. Develop a predictable routine—for example, interact with your pet before leaving and provide a favorite toy or a food puzzle to help them learn to enjoy time on their own. 
  • Create a safe zone — Designate a safe zone for your pet, and encourage them to stay by providing toys and long-lasting treats. Settle them in this area about 15 minutes before your departure.
  • Limit drama — Ensure departures and greetings are drama free. Quietly settle your pet in their safe zone and say goodbye when you leave. When you return, greet your pet only when they are calm. 
  • Behavior modification — Desensitization and counterconditioning techniques that include desensitization to your departure cues can help address separation anxiety. Steps include:
    • Practice your usual routine before leaving the house, but instead of leaving, sit on the couch, and give your pet a treat. Practice this multiple times a day for several days until your pet no longer reacts to the routine.
    • Once your pet remains calm during your departure routine, open the door but don’t leave, and give your pet a treat. Practice this several times until your pet is comfortable with this step.
    • Next, shut the door and leave for a short period, come back inside, and give your pet a treat. Gradually increase the amount of time you wait outside. 
    • Once your pet stays calm while you are outside, you can leave your home, starting with short trips.
  • Medications — Anti-anxiety medications that increase serotonin levels can help manage separation anxiety. 
  • Prevention — Crate training your pet when they are young is the best way to teach them to spend time on their own and prevent separation anxiety.

Age-related anxiety in pets

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in pets causes memory loss and learning deficits, and can lead to confusion and anxiety. Signs include failing to recognize family members and familiar locations, disruptions in their sleep cycle, increased anxiety, and loss of house training. CDS is a progressive disease that can’t be cured, but some methods can manage the problem, including:

  • Environmental modification — Make resources, such as food and water bowls, readily accessible. Take dogs outside more frequently to provide elimination opportunities, and don’t move your furniture to help avoid confusion.
  • Diet change — Diets high in antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and medium-chain triglycerides can improve cognitive function.
  • Medications — Medications to improve cognitive function and decrease anxiety may be helpful.
  • Prevention — CDS can’t be prevented, but appropriate physical and mental exercise can decrease your pet’s risk.

Anxiety is a significant problem for pets, and should be addressed to prevent behavioral and health complications. If your pet is exhibiting anxiety, contact our Groves Veterinary Clinic team, so we can devise a plan to help alleviate their distress and improve their quality of life.