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Nervous Nellies: Pet Anxiety explained

nervous looking brown dog sitting on couch perhaps experiencing pet anxiety
nervous looking brown dog sitting on couch perhaps experiencing pet anxiety

Is your pet a bit of a “nervous nellie”?

Pet anxiety can be a worrying issue for pet owners, not to mention the pets themselves! Anxiety may be situation-specific (such as when the pet visits unfamiliar environments or the veterinary clinic), or can be a generalised issue. Read on to learn more about anxiety in dogs and cats, and how our team can help!

 

Symptoms of anxiety Pets with anxiety may:

  • Crouch, with a tucked tail and ears 
  • Pace around or act restless 
  • Be hypervigilant or “jumpy” 
  • Pant excessively (more common in dogs) 
  • Tremble 
  • Vocalise 
  • Salivate excessively 
  • Hide or be evasive 
  • Drink or eat less 
  • Groom excessively (more common in cats) 
  • Show inappropriate toileting behaviours 
  • Lash out with aggressive behaviours if pushed too far out of their comfort zone 

 

Unfortunately, if ignored or treated incorrectly (e.g by punishment), anxiety tends to progress and worsen over time.

 

Why are some pets anxious?

Pets can develop anxiety for several reasons. 

Firstly, some pets may simply be born with a more “anxiety-prone” disposition. This can be due to general breed-related factors (with some breeds being more prone to “highly-strung” behaviour) but is also influenced by a pet’s unique genetics, as fearfulness is a moderately heritable trait from parents to offspring.

Pets can also develop fears or anxiety due to a lack of appropriate early socialisation in their peak socialisation period (around 3-14 weeks old). This may involve a lack of positive handling or a lack of positive exposure to a variety of unfamiliar people, animals, or situations, meaning the pet never habituates and becomes comfortable with these experiences. 

Lastly, traumatic events in a pet’s life can also result in fears or phobias – this can involve repeated exposure to a negative situation or one highly traumatic event (e.g. severe or painful illness or injury, requiring intensive veterinary hospitalisation and treatment).

 

How can we help pets with anxiety?

If you suspect your pet to be suffering from anxiety, the best course of action is to book a behavioural consultation with one of our knowledgeable veterinarians. During this consultation, we will take a detailed history of the pet and perform a thorough physical examination (which may also involve blood and urine tests). This will help us to rule out any other medical issues which could be behind changes in your pet’s behaviour (such as urinary tract disease causing your pet to urinate indoors, or chronic neck pain causing your pet to act evasively or lash out).

If we confirm a diagnosis of anxiety in your pet, our treatment plan will depend on the severity of their issue, and whether their anxiety is situation-specific or generalised. In general, treatment for anxiety may include: 

  • Short- or long-term anti-anxiety medications, so that your pet feels less fearful on a day-to-day basis 
  • Positive behavioural modification training, involving various relaxation exercises to “retrain” your pet’s brain to encourage a more calm, confident state in the long-term 
  • Creating a stable and safe environment for the pet, with predictable routines and no punishment for anxious behaviours 
  • For more severe cases, referral to a veterinary behavioural specialist

 

An Extra Tip for new Family Pets

Happy Paws vet nurse cuddling a nervous puppy

Can your new puppy or kitten do the ‘check’ trick? New floofers to the family? For future behavioural benefits, start familiarising them with gentle “medical-type” handling!

You don’t need to rush out and buy a white coat or stethoscope to wear,  unless you want to of course! It may help, however, to choose a consistent cue word (such as “check”) that you can say as you open your pet’s mouth , look inside their ears or handle their paws etc.

Proceed gently with lots of treaties and praise and build their skills and confidence so they will gradually feel more and more comfortable. Just a few minutes a day, on a regular basis, will help ensure your new pup or pretty-kitty can be prompted to stay relaxed and still for future grooming or medical visits

 

With a little dedication and our veterinary assistance, you can help your nervous nellie blossom into a more cool, calm, and confident canine or kitty!

 

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