Dr. Trudie Prinsloo is a qualified veterinarian and attorney. In 2015, she started Legalvet Services to provide legal advice to the animal health and veterinary industries in South Africa – and now she’s teamed up with us to tell us all about fear and anxiety in our pets.
While Dr. Prinsloo is a qualified veterinarian, she cannot advise on animal behaviour remotely. This blog is intended for informational purposes only and should in no way be regarded as a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnoses, or treatment.
dotsure.co.za is not responsible or liable for any advice or any other information provided herein. If you are concerned about your pet’s behaviour, the best course of action is to consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.
As I’m writing this, I hear my new neighbour’s dog barking incessantly. It is a bark that sounds desperate and panicky, no doubt very annoying to everyone around. I know this is not a naughty dog, I can hear this poor dog is experiencing severe anxiety and my heart aches for her. She is most likely suffering from separation anxiety.
Humans and animals experience fear. It is a primal emotion that functions to protect us from harm. Animals should have a fear of heights, to protect them from falling from heights that can cause serious injury or even death. They should have a fear of predators to keep them alive. This protective mechanism can become problematic in some animals and cause more harm than good if not identified and managed. Animals that suffer from excessive fear, not only experience a lower quality of life, but it often leads to euthanasia or abandonment.
Fear and anxiety
If an animal is scared, the heart rate will increase, muscles will become tense, and it may tremble and be short of breath. It creates unpleasant feelings. Fear and anxiety both cause animals to be scared, but are they the same thing? Although anxiety and fear can overlap, there are some important differences.
Fear is the response to a specific and immediate physical threat, such as when you walk your dog in a park and suddenly a large aggressive dog growls at her. If she reacts fearfully, it is a protective mechanism and usually a normal response. When fear is exaggerated and irrational (also called a phobia), it is abnormal behaviour and should be addressed. Pets display fear in different ways. An easy way to remember this is the five “f’s” – fight, flight, freeze, fiddle, and flirt. For example, one dog may react with aggression (fight) if he feels threatened, while another dog may run away (flight) and yet another may wiggle her tail and lie on her back (flirt) to deal with the perceived danger.
Anxiety is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a nervous feeling caused by a fear that something bad is going to happen. It is the anticipation that something bad may happen in the future. Although there are circumstances in which anxiety could be beneficial for a short period, this is usually a more destructive emotion and leads to behaviour problems.
Common fear-related behavioural problems in pets
- Noise sensitivity and phobias
Some studies suggest that about one-third of pet dogs are sensitive to at least one type of noise. The two most common causes of noise sensitivity are fireworks and thunder. These noise sensitivities often become worse over time and can become extreme phobias. I remember a Staffordshire Terrier that had such a phobia for fireworks that it jumped through a closed window every time there were fireworks in the area. This happened three times in one week, each time resulting in very bad injuries, but his fear of the noise was far greater than his fear of injuring himself.
- Fear of other dogs or strangers
Dogs that were not well socialized when they were young, or dogs that had bad experiences, especially at a young age, may develop irrational fears of other dogs or unfamiliar humans. It might relate to specific bad experiences, or it may just be a general irrational fear.
- Fear of new situations
Just like humans, some pets may react with excessive fear to new and unfamiliar situations. This is also more common in pets that have not been socialized and are normally kept at home. An example of this is the fear cats and dogs have when visiting a veterinary clinic.
- Generalized anxiety
Pets with generalized anxiety are constantly hyper-reactive, alert, and move continuously. They don’t settle down. This prevents them from having normal social interaction with humans and other pets. It is often seen where there is not enough stimulation for the pets.
- Separation anxiety
This is a behaviour disorder that happens when the pet is left at home alone, or is separated from its owner, for example when the dog is left in the garden while the owner is inside the house. It presents in different ways, such as excessive vocalization (barking, howling, or crying), destructive behaviour, or inappropriate elimination (defecating or urinating in places where the pet will not normally defecate or urinate). Dogs that have not done obedience training, animals that are adopted from shelters or have been rescued, and pets that are left alone at home for extended periods are more likely to develop separation anxiety. It also seems to be more prevalent in single-person households and it may be triggered by a change in the family dynamics, such as after a divorce, or a child leaving the house.
What can you do to prevent or alleviate these fear-related problems?
While each one of these problems are unique and have specific interventions and treatments that are recommended, there are a few things that you can do to decrease the chances of your pet developing any of the fear-based behaviour disorders.
The first thing is to make sure that all young animals are well-socialized and trained. This is obviously different for dogs and cats. Puppy socialization and obedience training are very important and significantly decrease the likelihood of behavioural problems from developing. It is also important for owners to understand how to interact with their cats in a manner that will create confident, happy pets.
Providing dogs and cats with regular healthy exercise is very important and another way in which anxiety problems can be prevented. Dogs that get out of their home environment to exercise in the park and interact with other humans and animals are far less likely to experience fear-related behaviour problems. Regular and positive interaction with pets makes them happier and better adapted animals.
Another way to prevent anxiety problems is to enrich the pet’s environment. This is especially important in cats that can usually not be taken outside to parks and for walks. Providing toys is one way of doing that, but cats enjoy climbing on and into things, and providing this in their environment helps to decrease their stress. There are some excellent ways in which you can enrich your home for your cat. YouTube and Google searches on this topic will help you find solutions. A dog’s environment should also be enriched to help stimulate your dog and keep her or him busy when you are not around.
Relaxing music or a radio playing while you are away from home can also have a calming effect on pets. I have seen this used in bomas for rhino and buffalo that had just been captured from the wild, and although there was no scientific evidence, it seemed to calm the animals.
Other things that you can do are to take your pet to a pet-daycare facility or to find a dog walker that can take your dog for walks when you are not available.
However, if your pet starts to display a fear-based behaviour disorder, please visit your veterinarian or animal behaviour specialist as soon as possible. In such instances, it is important to get management and treatment plans for the specific problem. The longer you wait to address a fear-based behaviour issue, the more difficult it will become to solve. Most of these problems can be solved or managed if assistance is sought in the early stages.