It is that time of year again, when the booming & cracking sounds of fireworks and thunderstorms fill the air, and strike terror in many of our beloved pets. Then, of course, there are also those of us who worry about our pet year round, watching them become anxious over a variety of things (the vacuum, car rides, strange animals and people, a windy day, or seemingly for no reason at all!). It can be heartbreaking to see our pets so terrified! These situations soon become stressful for us as well, often due to the unwanted behaviours our pets are exhibiting and the lack of understanding on our part. The Do’s and Don’ts listed below will hopefully help to shed some light on a better way to handle our anxious pets.
1. Do know the signs: For some pets, it is VERY obvious that they are not acting themselves – jumping in the owner’s lap, hiding, shaking uncontrollably, barking excessively. But sometimes the signs are less extreme – panting, drooling, clinginess to the owner, or mild changes in facial expressions (ears down, low short wags of the tail, looking away). These subtler signs are often the signs a pet will first show on the road to developing a fear. For some animals, these early signs of fear or anxiety can manifest into aggression towards the stimulus they are anxious about. The first step in fixing a problem is realizing that there is one!
2. DON’T punish! Many times the behaviours that anxieties illicit are unwanted and annoying. Some are quick to think punishment will stop the behaviour, or unknowingly punish in an effort to stop the behaviour (think telling a dog ‘NO!’ when they claw at your leg or begin to bark due to anxiety). And sometimes it does stop the behaviour when the animal learns the behaviour results in a punishment. BUT it DOES NOT stop the anxiety and fear your pet is feeling internally. PLUS the fear of punishment will also be added to their burden. Sometimes, the culmination of these anxieties will result in aggression and will always result in increased stress. It is important to remember that the underlying cause for the behaviour is anxiety towards a certain trigger, and intervening with something negative (a punishment) is not going to reduce anxiety, but add to it.
3. Do identify the cause of the anxiety: By identifying what exactly it is that makes your pet anxious, you can be prepared and pro active in avoiding the situation and providing calming measures prior to the anticipated event. What just occurred or is occurring when you notice your pet behaving differently? Did the wind pick up? Did they see something out the window? Is there a particular dog breed near them at the dog park? It is also good to keep in mind that physical illness can result in anxiety related behaviours as well (think panting, pacing, clinginess, hiding, drooling, voiding in the house and so on). So, if your pet is acting differently, always consider their physical health as well as any potential anxieties so that something potentially very serious for their physical health is not missed or ignored. We often see sick animals who come in exhibiting anxious behaviours, simply because they do not feel well physically.
4. Do be prepared: Once the stressors are identified and anxiety is anticipated, you can begin to actively HELP your pet. Thunderstorm phobia? Watch the weather forecast and start calming measures as soon the clouds begin to roll in (NOT when the thunder is booming) or ongoing therapies during the season. Anxious around screaming kids? Consider having a friend keep your dog during the kid’s birthday parties. Talk to family members and get everyone on board with what can be done to best help your furry family member. It is easier to prevent fearful reactions and behaviour than it is to reverse it.
5. Do remain compassionate: It definitely can be annoying when your dog won’t stop barking, climbing into your lap, and drooling all over your house during a storm. It is important to remember, as inconvenient as their behaviour is for you, your beloved pet is TERRIFIED and deserves our utmost patience and understanding during these stressful events!
6. DON’T ‘flood’ your pet with what they are afraid of in hopes they will ‘get used to it’. A dog that is afraid of fireworks, is not going to benefit from you taking them to the fireworks. A cat that is afraid of dogs is not going to benefit from being locked in a room with a dog. Often, these attempts result in even more fear, because their worst fear is now realized! During a ‘flooding’ experience, an animal may even exhibit even more extreme behaviours – running away or aggression – as a means to somehow try and get away from the very scary situation they feel they are in.
7. Do consult the experts: Pets who are more severely affected by fears, anxieties and phobias, a consult with a veterinary behaviourist can be life-changing for the whole family, and a very positive step towards helping your pet. These specially trained veterinarians take an in depth look at the behaviours your pet is exhibiting, help to pin point the causes of the stressors, and give step by step guidelines to help your pet overcome these fears in a safe and positive way. They can also better recommend any prescription and over the counter anti-anxiety products that would be beneficial either short or long term. These consults can also give you peace of mind in knowing that you are doing all you can to help your pet with their anxiety.
8. Do consider natural & drug free over the counter anti-anxiety products: These products are a great place to start for any pet with mild to moderate anxieties. They can help to relieve anxieties in a natural way, and may be enough to help make your pet feel more calm and safe. They are great to use as a pro-active approach prior to anticipated stressful events. See our Feline and Canine Calming Agents Quick Reference Guides for an example of what is available.
9. Don’t jump immediately to prescription medications for behaviour-modification purposes for your pet: Most are sedating, can have a variable effect, and can have other unwanted side effects. That being said, prescription medications definitely have their place in some comprehensive behaviour therapy plans and can be very helpful for pets experiencing more extreme anxiety. So, although we DO use prescription medications to help our pets, it is best to use them only after careful consideration and assessment and in combination with other methods to reduce the anxiety.
10. Don’t wait! Especially when first noticing any subtle signs that may be anxiety related behaviours it is always best to act immediately and do all you can to alleviate these anxieties. This is especially important for young animals because they are so incredibly sensitive to everything they are learning in the early parts of their life. By addressing anxieties early on, we have the best chance at helping our pet’s overcome their fears in a positive way, leading them on the road to be well adjusted, confident and happy.