My Pet is Anxious, What Can I Do?

Catherine Lenox, DVM, CVA, Diplomate ACVN

Manager of Scientific Affairs, Royal Canin USA

Behavioral issues are common in cats and dogs and often leave owners wondering how they can help their pets. Some owners will become frustrated with behavioral issues such as inappropriate urination in cats or destructive behaviors in dogs. Owners who feel as though their pet is suffering from anxiety should contact their veterinarian as soon as possible to help address the issues. Addressing the anxiety is important to keep both pets and their owners happier.

Anxiety, fears and phobias are common causes of behavioral issues in pets. Fears and phobias can be in response to a specific stimulus such as a loud noise or thunderstorm, or can be “idiopathic,” which means there is no known cause or trigger. Separation anxiety, which occurs when a pet is alone or separated from one or more of its owners, is a common form of anxiety-related behavior. Anxiety, fears, and phobias are not necessarily constant throughout life – for example, a dog with a thunderstorm phobia may become more and more fearful as he or she gets older. Some dog breeds, especially smaller dogs, are more prone to anxiety.

Clinical Signs of Anxiety

Clinical signs of anxiety in cats and dogs can vary in severity and include things like:
  • Trembling
  • Hiding or withdrawal
  • Reduced activity
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation (usually outside the litter box or in the house)
  • Destructive behavior
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Abnormal movements in response to panic
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive grooming or biting that can lead to hair loss or self-injury
Clinical signs associated with anxiety can be mild or severe and, recurrence of signs can be frequent or intermittent. One example of an intermittent expression of anxious behaviors would be fireworks phobia – it is unlikely that a pet afraid of fireworks will be scared on a regular basis. For that reason, a pet with a fireworks phobia will be treated in a different manner than a pet who experiences anxiety more regularly, like a pet with separation anxiety. However, even if a pet is anxious only rarely, treatment may be necessary or recommended depending on the clinical signs and severity.

Causes of Anxiety

There are a number of different causes of anxiety in cats and dogs, including:

  • Improper social and environmental exposure
  • Illness or a painful physical condition
  • Aging-related changes such as cognitive dysfunction (“dementia” in animals)
  • Infectious diseases
  • Frightening experiences
  • Panic related to inability to escape or hide from a situation
  • History of abandonment or prior neglect
  • History of rehoming / multiple owners
Remember that many phobias and fears are idiopathic, meaning they have no known underlying cause. Many pets scared of thunderstorms or fireworks are fearful for no obvious reason.

Treatment

With all pet health issues, prevention is key. However, it is often difficult to prevent a pet from becoming fearful or anxious. If you have a nervous cat or dog, visit your veterinarian, who will recommend treatment based on the severity of the anxious behavior and the cause or trigger of the anxiety.

Some examples of treatments that may be recommended include:

Sometimes, a referral to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist is recommended for severe or difficult cases of cat or dog anxiety. If this is indicated for your pet, ask your veterinarian for a referral to an appropriate person.

VISIT YOUR VET

Remember that only your veterinarian can properly identify, diagnose and prescribe the best treatment plan to manage anxiety in your pet.