Scaredy Cats, Petrified Pooches
Why are some pets scared?
Most of our animal companions are relaxed, happy and generally live stress-free lives. Some pets, however, are not so laid back and, just like we humans, suffer anxieties of one form or another.
Thunderstorms and fireworks are common triggers of anxiety attacks in dogs, while the presence of another cat or a dog can stress out our feline family members. Even inanimate objects such as strange briefcases or umbrellas can terrify a nervous animal.
Like us, animals are often frightened by the unpredictable or the unknown. A first encounter with a skateboard can be scary for a dog who has never seen or heard one before. Unpleasant events can also be remembered by our pets. Just getting into the car can be a trigger for some animals to start shaking, terrified of the upcoming trip.
Fear is our reaction to a frightening event. With anxiety, there is no really threat present, only a perceived one, but the symptoms of fear occur anyway. When fears become obsessive and persistent, this is a phobia.
What does an anxious animal do?
Most animals will try to avoid unpleasant situations and this, of course, is the best survival strategy. When escape is impossible, they will generally stand up for themselves and may even attack the stimulus. A fear of children, for instance, may lead to a bite if the child keeps approaching the animal.
Adrenaline rushes through the body, preparing us to either fight or take flight. While the heart beats faster and the rate of breathing speeds up, all other bodily reactions, such as digestion, slow down, to enable the body to concentrate on survival. This is why most pets will not accept food treats when they are scared.
Animals will often show other signs of stress or anxiety including trembling, tail drooping, drooling, dilated pupils, panting, vocalisation (crying, whining or barking), unusual toileting behaviours and/or a tense body.
Scaredy cats can be difficult to live with. Scaredy dogs, even harder, especially when their anxiety turns into aggression!" Dr Jo
Is your pet anxious?
Does your cat or dog do any of the following? If so, he or she may be suffering from anxiety.
While many fear-provoking situations justify a terrified response, anxiety may occur as a result of something as simple as being left alone. It is possible to reduce the anxiety felt by these overly-bonded animals and others whose fears and phobias cause problems in household harmony.
Solutions for anxiety
Prevention by socialisation
As always, prevention is better than cure. Prevention in the case of fears and phobias is best done young. Introduce puppies and kittens to a wide variety of people, places and objects, and make these encounters positive ones and chances are no anxieties will develop.
Take your new pup to the bike park and let him observe children playing with bikes and skateboards. If you are relaxed, then he will be too. Reward your dog for calm behaviour with praise or food treats. Introduce your new kitten to people around your home, taking care to make these meetings positive ones.
Reinforce calm behaviour
While we cannot change the way our animals feel, we can help them feel more comfortable in potentially fearful situations. We do this by rewarding their calm behaviour.
Desensitise your pet
We need to introduce the fearful pet, or de-sensitise them, to the object of their fear. We do this by very gradual and careful introductions. If your cat is scared of your guests for instance, we can put your cat in a cat carrying case and sit it at a distance from the visitors. Your cat will get used to their sounds, movements and scents without having to confront them.
If your pet has a phobia, it is worth getting help from your vet or a behaviourist who can design a step-by-step treatment program. Medication may be required to calm your pet down. Going at the individual’s pace is important as “too much too soon” can cause setbacks in progress, just as your lifelong fear of spiders or snakes can’t be cured overnight!
The good news is that many fears and phobias can be overcome and your animal companion can live a stress-free life and so can you.