Anxiety is defined as a generalized feeling of apprehension or anticipation of a danger from unknown or imagined origins. The body’s response to such a state is what is classically known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. In a normal situation this reaction allows an animal to escape the threatening stimulus or defend itself if deemed appropriate. However, in an animal with generalized anxiety disorder, this can lead to a chronic stress response, putting a major strain on the animal’s health and longevity.
Early indications of an anxiety disorder can be as simple as excessive yawning, lip licking, tail tucking and scratching for no discernible reason. This can progress to trembling, withdrawal and hiding. These behaviours are the signs to watch for as early intervention can speed resolution or management.
More severe signs of an anxiety disorder, whether it is generalized or more of a specific phobia, are escape behaviours that are out-of-context, often exaggerated and even potentially injury causing. Animals in this heightened state can lose bladder and or bowel control. Aggression can sometimes become a factor of increased concern with a highly anxious animal. Redirected aggression occurs in both indoor and outdoor cats. It occurs in response to an anxiety causing stimulus such as from seeing a neighbourhood cat. This creates an agitated state that can result in this cat attacking another pet in the household, a person, or even an inanimate object. A fear response from a dog can include a growl or bite when they are under distress. These are two examples of inappropriate ‘fight or flight’ reactions to something otherwise non-threatening to most other individuals.
Proper socialization and exposure to different stimuli from an early age are necessary in the raising of a well-rounded pet. Our puppy socialization classes, here at Scottsdale Veterinary Hospital, were developed for that reason and they continue to be successful with each and every class. Puppies learn and demonstrate improvement in their communication and socialization behaviours with people and dogs of many breeds throughout their participation.
Early recognition of an anxiety issue and the detection of the trigger/phobia are essential to successful management. As an example, a dog with a noise phobia to thunder can progress to including fireworks as a trigger for its anxiety, which can eventually worsen to become a more generalized disorder to any and all loud noises. Cats may become fearful of their crate/carry kennel, particularly if they associate it with only going to a veterinary office or boarding kennel. Keeping the kennel out and encouraging your cat to sleep or eat snacks in it can help to desensitize them to the kennel and travel experiences.
Identifying the trigger is the first step to desensitization and behavioural modification. Positive based reward training is imperative as any scolding or what could be deemed a negative response from an owner can trigger further apprehension and anxiety. Reward with play, treats, or praise, relaxed behaviours when the stimulus is not present. Once this routine is established, do the same when the desired behaviour is exhibited during desensitization to the known stimulus.
Anti-anxiety medications are an adjunct to the above when the anxiety disorder is so intense that it interferes with learning and achieving desensitization. There are also supplemental therapies that have recently shown promise in the management of anxiety disorders. We personally have had good success using a green tea based supplement and a natural pheromone product in both cats and dogs for many different anxiety issues.
If you are concerned with anxiety issues in your pet please call for an appointment today. To better enable us to help your pet at your appointment time you can visit our website for a copy of a detailed behaviour questionnaire. This should be filled out prior to your appointment as a thorough history is important in your pet’s behavioural assessment.