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Understanding pet anxiety and how it manifests

Pet anxiety can come out in some strange ways, yet it’s surprisingly common. Every single mammal on the planet understands fear. It’s a situational response we have that allows us to consider, respond to and plan for danger. But what of anxiety? And specifically, what of anxiety in pets?

Having an anxious dog or cat or pocket pet is more common than most people realise.  It can create issues within your relationship with your family pet and be downright debilitating for the pet itself.

Let’s look at the ways anxiety manifests in our family pets and what we can do to help them manage or even overcome the issues 

How does anxiety show up in a pet?

Anxiety is about having a sense of foreboding for things that may happen, real or imagined. We tend to know by seeing an anxious pet that things are not OK. Or we can see the evidence of the issues they have had while we have gone.

Common demonstrations of pet anxiety include:

  • Excessive barking, howling and verbalising
  • Drooling
  • It may also come in the form of losing of the bowel and bladder control leading to spontaneous and/or unexpected toileting in unusual places
  • Lots of licking, fur pulling, feather plucking, excessive grooming and even gnawing on paws and tails can be present with an anxious pet
  • Other obsessive and repetitive behaviours
  • Destruction of pet toys, pet beds, household items, doors and other items in the home can also be another sign
  • Pacing, panting and anxious movements of the limbs and tail can be another
  • Stress symptoms such as cowering, hiding and running away

There are also some breeds of dogs that might be more prone to anxiety than others. For example, through design and through experience, greyhounds can be quite anxious. So too can Huskies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shorthaired Pointers, Poodles and Border Collies. This can be genetics. And it can also be that you might have a highly intelligent dog that is geared towards needing extra enrichment, exercise and stimulation.

You can also find there are common anxieties and phobias your pet that you may have encountered previously.

Here are some of the more common fear responses you might be aware of- 

  • Loud noises – for example, many family pets fear fireworks for this reason
  • Bathing and water fears– this can range from a dislike right through to terror
  • Wind phobia in dogs – something we have discussed before
  • Fear of new people and places and/or certain types of people such as tall men or people with one type of appearance trait
  • Reactions to shiny or slippery floors
  • Confinement anxiety with spaces, yards and being put inside
  • Separation anxiety
  • Travel anxiety

Your pet can show anxiety in a variety of different ways and to varying degrees.

For example, being scared by something blowing off the table doesn’t mean there is a wind phobia in play. However, an animal ducking for shelter every time the curtains catch the breeze is something that needs investigation.

Similarly, all pets miss us when we are gone. But a dog that damages household items and their own belongings, howls and looks visibly upset and stressed each day when you come home is a level that needs support and help.

If you are concerned that your pet is demonstrating anxiety, please contact our vet nurses at Fox Valley Animal Hospital. We can help you with advice and making sense of the behaviour. As well as discuss next steps.

Puppies and the fear stage

It’s also important to note that all puppies go through what is called the fear stage in two key times of their development. Puppies commonly enter the fear stage for the first time at around 2 to 3 months of age. Kittens can also experience a fear stage at this time.

As you can tell from the age, this is usually when they leave their mother, litter mates and what they know as familiar and begin to integrate with your family.

For a young pup or a kitten, such change can be overwhelming. They are learning all manner of things from the world around them. People, sights, sounds, new things to learn, environments, lessons and commands, food and all manner of other stimulus is coming at them.

This is why puppies and kittens sleep so much. They are processing an entire world at a mile a minute. With that can come a sense of anxiety or fear. It’s all new! Yet it is manageable.

The second fear stage will come in later stages of puppyhood. Usually around 5 to 6 months of age, but it can also be much later in some dogs.

You may see a normally playful, adventurous and open pup suddenly become cautious or withdrawn. They may look at the world differently and react with barking, hesitation, freezing on the lead or shying away from objects.

Whenever your family pet is in the fear stage, it is important to:

  • Make everything fun and positive. If this means putting on a fun voice and offering a few treats, do it
  • Not get frustrated in the changes of behaviour. All young animals go through phases. Patience is always the best medicine
  • Lead by example. If they have gotten worried about the bin, the door or a local lamp they usually walk happily past, let them know it is safe. Touch it, talk to them, show them they have nothing to fear
  • Avoid pushing the animal closer to what they fear. No amount of you dragging a puppy or a kitten to something scary will prove they have nothing to fear. Allow them to build the confidence to approach it with you. Never force your pet towards an object or item they are truly scared of
  • Use pet toys, squeakers and treats to distract. If they don’t want to use the stairs, make it a game or fun. Let them take their focus away from the fear

With the right support and partnership, your family pet will grow away from the fear stages with renewed confidence. That puppy or kitten will also have extra trust in your decision making. The main aim is to allow your family pet to take their time and figure it out. Safely, confidently and with a whole lot of patience is the only way.

In our next blog on pet anxiety, we discuss your options for support and treatment. This includes at home and with our veterinary clinic supporting you.

If you are struggling, please do not hesitate to call our Wahroonga vet clinic on (02) 9489 4805. Our friendly vet nurses are here to help you and your lovely pet with pet anxiety.

About the Author
Owner and Vet Alex Brittan, Vet Katie Syms and the team of Fox Valley Animal Hospital pride themselves on quality service. Fox Valley Animal Hospital is the one you choose for your family pet when the care your animal receives really matters.