Does your pet flee and hide when they are exposed to certain stimuli like thunder and fireworks? Do they develop a posture that includes a lowered head, retraction of the ears, and a tucked tail when they are around certain people or situations? Are your pets exhibiting destructive behavior or excessive vocalization when left alone or when in certain environments? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then your pet may be experiencing anxiety or some type of phobia.
So what does it mean when a pet is experiencing anxiety or has a phobia? Anxiety is an uncontrollable feeling of impending doom or a threat. This can be triggered by specific situations such as being in a new location, or non- specific such as a change in a schedule or routine. A phobia is an exaggerated response to a stimulus that an animal perceives as fear-inducing.
So how do phobias and anxious responses come about? Usually an early experience that was unpleasant can play a role. For example, if your pet was harmed by a certain person, or felt discomfort or pain in a certain environment then that person or environment may become a trigger. I get that experience frequently from my patients. As soon as they come to the veterinary clinic they become either very apprehensive or aggressive. Also any stimuli (people, sounds, sights, places, etc.) that a pet has NOT been exposed to during a sensitive period of development can become fear provoking when finally exposed to it. A common example would be a pet that has no exposure to children when young, then they become fearful when first exposed to the sounds, sights, and odors of young children. Surprisingly genetics can also play a role whether phobias and anxieties develop in your pet.
Phobias can arise from either just one exposure or gradually increase with continued exposure to a specific stimuli. With anxiety, the level of neurotransmitter function can be altered and contribute to the overall behavior. Consequences that follow the behavior can either help or exacerbate the problem.
So what treatment options are available? This all depends on what stimuli is causing the behavior but there are general ways to help aid your pet with any of these problems. There are preventative measures that can be taken when your pets are young. A protocol of socialization and exposure to many new things can be helpful. The way you respond when your pet experiences new things is very important. It is important that you introduce your pet to new experiences with a calming reassurance. Also understanding your pet’s individual temperament can help you determine what situations you can and should expose your pet to.
So what if each time your pet is exposed to an anxiety or phobia inducing situation they cannot be calmed down? Unfortunately the problem will likely worsen. The goal is to find a way to control, relax, or distract your pet when the stimulus is present. If this can be done, you can teach your pet that nothing is to be feared. A calm and in control approach helps reduce the fear and anxiety associated with new stimuli and situations. Behavior modification is one technique used to help redirect the pet’s behavior. This is where the pet is exposed to mild levels of the stimuli and rewarded for non-fearful behavior. When the pet is exposed to new stimuli with low levels of anxiety, most will calm down with continued exposure. One must be careful not to reinforce the fear by inadvertently giving rewards by retreating of the stimulus or exacerbate the fear through punishment. Drug therapy may also be a necessary adjunctive for some behaviors.
The goal of this article is to give you a general overview of what is involved with phobia and anxiety influenced behaviors. These behaviors can be challenging and may require persistence and perseverance to help treat. It is important you talk to your veterinarian about options for your pet. In future articles, I plan to discuss specific behavioral problems such as separation anxiety, thunder-phobia, and fear aggression. Please come back and visit if you are interested in learning more. Also feel free to subscribe to this blog so you can be notified of any new articles.