Life without Worry: Recognizing and Reducing Anxiety in Our Pets

By May 14, 2020Blog

By Staff Member Leanne Schmitt BS, RVT, Fear Free Certified Professional

As the threat of Covid-19 looms before us we find ourselves uncertain about the future. Changes are occurring everyday to protect our health and safety. These modifications to our daily life require flexibility and understanding. Unpredictable schedules and routines not only present new challenges for us, but for our pets as well. As our homes are transformed into our offices, it is inevitable that our pets will become accustomed to spending more time with us. How will our pets cope when we are required to go back to work and suddenly they are home alone once again? Behavior professionals are proactively addressing concerns related to separation distress and anxiety. Managing anxiety in our pets requires patience and compassion. It is important that we first recognize how anxiety manifests in animals. We then address the needs of the individual pet and we create an environment that is safe and predictable. We provide enrichment activities that stimulate their minds. We schedule time for decompression by granting them permission to engage in their normal animal behaviors. Our animals can thrive when we take the necessary steps to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress in their lives.

Anxiety in Animals

Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, uneasiness, and apprehension often marked by physical signs1. From a biological perspective, anxiety can be beneficial. When an animal enters a state of fight, flight, fidget, or freeze their bodies are flooded with hormones that facilitate a cascade of physiologic processes. These physiologic changes increase focus, reaction time, and alertness. Therefore, preparing the animal to engage in defensive behaviors to protect themselves from a perceived threat. Although we may interpret their reaction as disproportionate to the trigger it does not change the fact that the animal is experiencing a negative emotional state. Dogs have the cognitive ability of a two-year old and this limits their understanding of environmental stimuli.

An animal that is experiencing anxiety may show the following signs:

  • Furrowed brow
  • Ears back
  • Pupils dilated
  • Whites of the eyes showing
  • Lips pulled back so that the back molars are showing
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Cowering
  • Avoidance/moving away
  • Tail tucked/stiff high tail wag
  • Raised hair along the spine
  • Panting

Can you tell the difference between the 2 photos below?

Dogs are expert non-verbal communicators. When they are experiencing anxiety they will often demonstrate displacement behaviors or calming signals. These behaviors are intended to communicate that they are not a threat and they would like the interaction to de-escalate. You may recognize some of the behaviors below. Understand that these behaviors occurring out of context is what lets us know that they are secondary to anxiety.

  • Looking away
  • Panting
  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Shaking off
  • Sniffing
  • Sneezing
  • Grooming
  • Play bow/jumping

Establish Routine and Predictability

Establishing a routine at home can greatly reduce anxiety in our pets. Feeding times, walks, interactive play/enrichment, and rest can all be scheduled. You do not need to adhere to a strict timeline, but do your best to engage in these activities with your pet at the same time each day. Remember that we do not communicate the same way our dogs do. Dogs can learn that our human mannerisms predict good things like walks, play, and treats. Try to structure your interactions in a way that reduces anxiety and provides predictability. If our interactions are focused on positive reinforcement instead of positive punishment our animals will move more freely in their environment, offering behaviors without fear. I have included videos that demonstrate using verbal cues to predict interaction.

Placing a harness on a pet can be frightening for the pet. It requires us to reach over their head and place a novel piece of equipment on their body.

Introducing the harness and creating a positive emotional response for the pet with a new piece of equipment.

Introducing a verbal cue for placing the harness on your pet. This cue gives your pet information about the interaction that is about to take place.

Keep your training sessions short and fun. Monitor for signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in your pet. Make modifications to reduce stress responses.

The final product! Use the cue, place the equipment on the pet, and give treats!

This is one way to offer our pets predictability in their environment. Be consistent in your response to your pet’s behaviors. When your dog offers a behavior, respond the same way each time, this communicates a clear and predictable result for your dog. By establishing a daily routine and giving our dogs predictability we give them the skills needed to navigate their lives with humans.

Enrichment:

Enrichment stimulates the mind and gives our pets the opportunity to engage in their inherent behaviors. Different species and breeds may prefer different types of enrichment. Overall enrichment should be varied, engage the senses, and allow the animal to perform natural behaviors without restriction. Enrichment should not be so challenging that it induces frustration. Start simple, especially if your pet is new to these types of activities.

Decompression Walks in Nature

‘Sarah Stremming defines a decompression walk as “a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature.” This can be done off-leash or on a long line with a back clipping harness. It sounds simple enough, yet the physical, emotional, and behavioral benefits of this practice can be profound2.’

Sniffing

Dogs obtain valuable information through their noses. Allow them as much time as they need to stop and smell the roses, figuratively and literally. Remember that the walk is for your dog. If you only walk one block in a 45 minute time period because your dog was smelling the grass, that is perfectly acceptable and probably your dog’s preference.

Food Puzzles

Food puzzles are interactive toys that can be stuffed with treats. These puzzles vary greatly in their level of difficulty. Starting simple so that your pet can gain confidence is key. These are not distraction tools but rather games that engage the mind and the senses.

Foraging

Give dogs lots of opportunities to use those sniffers. Cardboard boxes that can be shredded, snuffle mats, treats hidden throughout the backyard are all great ways to encourage your pet to do some powerful nosework.

Chewing

I personally love giving my dogs things to chew that also clean their teeth. Veterinary Dentist approved rawhides are easily digestible, reducing risk of intestinal obstruction. See VOHC Accepted Products for Dogs for a list of products that not only clean teeth but fulfill a dog’s need to chew.

Digging

Digging is often referred to as a nuisance behavior, but in dog life it is a natural behavior. In fact, we bred specific breeds to dig in order to locate vermin and other pests. Give your pet a designated place to dig. Children’s pools or sandboxes filled with soil work very well for this.

Independence:

Dogs are social animals. They do well within a group and thrive when they have opportunities for socialization and play. Humans are also social animals, we need human interaction and intimacy in our lives. Bringing dogs into our homes meets the needs of both species. While interaction within the social group is essential, having the ability to cope when alone is essential as well. Being alone or separated from the social group can be stressful for our dogs. Spending more time at home leaves little room for dogs to be alone. Instead they spend their days following us, soliciting play, or sleeping next to our feet while we work. Allowing them the chance to retreat to their crate or lie on their bed is an opportunity for you to reinforce their independence.

Schedule times during the day to give yourself and your dog space from each other. Setup your dog in another room and give them a food puzzle to engage in.

Picking a comfortable mat for your pet and creating a positive emotional response.

Reinforcing your pet for going to the mat.

Add in body movement when your pet is lying on the mat.

Reinforce your pet for lying on their mat for longer periods of time.

Toss your dog a treat if you find them peacefully lying on their bed.

When you leave and return from an outing keep your departure and arrival calm and uneventful. Do your best to meet your pet’s needs for enrichment, socialization, and play daily. Independence in our dogs is healthy and a skill that should be reinforced throughout their lives.

Separation Anxiety:

Separation anxiety is a medical diagnosis and describes a condition where a pet experiences severe signs of anxiety in the absence of the social group, often resulting in destructive behaviors and self-injury3. Animals who suffer from separation anxiety may have experienced one or more of the following events4:

  • Change in the owner’s routine
  • Owner returning to a school or work
  • Moving to a new home
  • Visiting a new environment
  • Boarding in a kennel
  • Altered social relationships (new baby, spouse, pet)
  • Other fears, phobias, anxieties
  • Medical and cognitive disorders

Separation anxiety can only be diagnosed by a veterinarian. Signs of separation anxiety include:

  • Vocalization
  • Destructiveness
  • House Soiling

A treatment plan is developed to help manage the symptoms associated with the separation anxiety. It is important to know that there is no cure for separation anxiety, but you can minimize the intensity of the pet’s symptoms through behavior modification and anxiolytics, or medications that reduce anxiety. Your treatment plan may include the following:

  • Establishing a routine
  • Independence exercises (relax on a bed)
  • Crate training (ONLY if this does not increase anxiety)
  • Medications
  • Enrichment and exercise
  • Structuring arrivals and departures

Managing separation anxiety can seem overwhelming at times, especially if there is a history of the pet injuring themselves. Know that you are not alone in this, and that your veterinarian and their staff are here to help you create a happy and safe environment for your pet.

Everyday we do our best to navigate the unique challenges of today’s world. Social distancing, working from home, and lack of outdoor activities can leave us feeling isolated and frustrated. Take this time to bond with your pet through positive training sessions, creative enrichment, and walks in nature. Be mindful of creating space between you and your dog so that they develop the skills to cope when you return to work. Recognize that your pet is always having a conversation with you, sending you non-verbal cues to relay their emotional state. Anxiety in our pets exists, recognizing it and treating it gives our animals an opportunity to live their best lives. Make the steps above part of your daily life and your pet will flourish in a safe, predictable, and enriching environment.

1Cooperative Veterinary Care, First Edition. Alicea Howell and Monique Feyrecilde. 2018 John Wiley and Sons Inc. Published 2018 by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

2The Life-Changing Power of Decompression Walks. Jenny Efimova. 2019. Dogminded. https://www.dogmindedboston.com/blog/2019/5/27/the-life-changing-power-of-decompression-walks

3Behavior Problems of the Dog & Cat, Third Edition. G. Landsberg, W. Hunthausen, L. Ackerman. 2013 Saunders Elsevier. Published 2013 by Elsevier Ltd.

4Behavior Problems of the Dog & Cat, Third Edition. G. Landsberg, W. Hunthausen, L. Ackerman. 2013 Saunders Elsevier. Published 2013 by Elsevier Ltd. Page 203.

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