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How to manage your pet's anxiety

By Cathy Chun

A bit of ¨bad¨ behavior in dogs and cats is part of a healthy life. Who doesn´t like a dose of banter here and there after all? But just like in humans undesirable behavior by pets exists on a spectrum. Sometimes bad behavior may be bothersome to owners, but is perfectly normal within a particular breed. But behavior that is more extreme, or prevalent, may suggest that your pet is suffering from a mental health issue, and that speaking with your veterinary care provider may be in order.

Anxiety, affects close to 40 million people (12.5% of the population) in the United States. It is also the most commonly diagnosed disorder by veterinary behavior specialists. According to a study by the University of Illinois close to 20-40% of dogs with pathological behavior problems are diagnosed with separation anxiety, and according to Merck Veterinary close to 14% of all dogs live with this particular form of the disorder.

Differentiating normal from pathological behavior is no easy task, and the surest way is to bring up your concerns with the vet, who will then carry out a differential diagnosis.

The symptoms of anxiety can vary widely across individual pets, just as they vary across individual people. In general, your pet may exhibit a range of behaviors that include: shaking, loss of appetite, hyperactivity, hypervigilance, destructive or escapist behavior and excessive crying or barking. These behaviors can be exhibited in response to an isolated set of situations (for example meeting new people or new dogs/cats, travelling, being alone, visiting the vet's office), or in response to a wide range of situations.

In dogs the most common response is increased aggression, which is also the most common behavioral problem in canines, accounting for over 70% of cases in behavior specialists´ practices. Aggression is often an attempt by the dog to distance itself from its source of anxiety.

While failure to use the litter box, and sores and overgrooming are common tell-tale anxiety signs in cats, identifying symptoms of anxiety in cats may be more challenging, as they tend to withdraw from owners, and hide their pain.

If you suspect that your pet is suffering from anxiety, there are some simple ways to assess and address the root causes.

Using video to record your pet's behavior may be an invaluable diagnosis tool, especially when the symptoms are linked to very specific circumstances. A video test can be conducted by exposing the pet to the purported source of anxiety, while carefully excluding from the environment anything else that may cause the same symptoms. During this process, it is important to be on the lookout for less than obvious anxiety responses, including increased heart rate and blood pressure higher motor activity and vigilance.

The treatments for anxiety are as varied as anxiety´s sources. Most treatments target anxiety through a combination of medications and behavioral therapy. In some cases there may be an underlying physical or mental disease which is causing the anxiety, in which case curing the disease will help to return your pet to normal.

In other cases (as is often the case in generalized anxiety disorder), the disease is caused by a chemical imbalance, in which case a more drug heavy approach will be used. Just like in humans, serotonin reuptake inhibitors and calming agents like benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed. While these medications will start changing the pet's behavior within a week (or almost immediately in the case of the benzodiazepines), the full effect will not be reached until after a month of treatment.

In cases in which the pet's behavior is caused by isolated circumstances, the bulk of the treatment will focus on changing its emotional response to that event by exposing it to increasingly strong sources of anxiety, and reinforcing the preferred response.

Anxiety is one of the most debilitating conditions for pets and owners alike. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most undertreated conditions. Keeping an eye for these common symptoms can help you address it promptly and ensure a healthy, happy pet.

If you have are unsure about how to seek help for your pet's anxiety, or have a pet that has recently been diagnosed reach out to us for help. You can email us at contact@dearmittens.com

Works Cited

Cat Anxiety: Understanding Your Stressed Cat | Hill's Pet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hillspet.com/cat-care/healthcare/cat-anxiety

Merck Veterinary Manual. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merckvetmanual.com/

Separation Anxiety in Dogs - Veterinary Medicine at Illinois. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://vetmed.illinois.edu/separation-anxiety-dogs/

Team, T. M. (2017, December 12). Anxiety: Causes, symptoms, and treatments. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/anxiety

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