Nothing is more heartbreaking than watching your pet whine, shake, drool, or hide when suffering from fear, anxiety, or stress. Some pets become so panicked, they harm themselves or destroy their surroundings in an attempt to find safety. Fear, anxiety, and stress are such common conditions, they’re often given the single term “FAS.” An estimated 50% of pets suffer from FAS, but this condition is still not well-known, and pets and owners alike struggle with its management.
June is Pet Anxiety Awareness month (PAAW), with the goal of helping pet owners recognize FAS in their pets and find solutions.
Causes of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets
Fear, anxiety, and stress result from a neurochemical reaction in a pet’s brain that can be induced by a vast assortment of causes, including the following:
- Genetics — Some breeds are more prone to high anxiety than others. The mother’s stress level during pregnancy also influences a pet’s ability to cope with change and scary situations.
- Experience — Socialization when pets are puppies and kittens is crucial for their development as happy, stable pets. Positive exposure to new places, people, animals, sights, and sounds is also necessary to prevent your pet from becoming fearful.
- Environment — Changes in a pet’s environment, such as rearranged furniture, new pets, new people in the household, a change in schedule, loud noises, thunderstorms, and lack of mental stimulation, can make a pet anxious.
During FAS periods, the brain signals an increase in adrenaline and cortisol release. Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, allowing a stressed pet to become sick more easily. A previously stressed pet also can become stressed more easily, leading to a vicious downward spiral. Some stressors are beyond your control, but some stress triggers can be avoided.
The spectrum of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets
Dr. Marty Becker, the veterinarian who began the Fear Free initiative, has worked tirelessly to help both pet owners and veterinary professionals recognize the signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets. The spectrum of fear, anxiety, and stress was developed to help identify the subtle body-language cues a nervous pet is displaying.
FAS is often overlooked, especially in cats who like to hide, and picking up on subtle body-language cues can be challenging. Cats and dogs display anxiety in different ways. You may have a fearful cat on your hands if you see the following:
- Tail flicking
- Skin rippling
- Self-directed behavior, such as pretend grooming, licking paws, or tail chasing
The following, slightly different, signs may indicate a nervous dog:
- Whining or whimpering
- Destructive behavior
Both species can exhibit similar signs, including:
- Dilated pupils
- Avoiding eye contact
- Raised hair
Aggression is the last resort for most pets. However, pets who are continually exposed to scary situations, such as nail trims, grooming with clippers, ear cleaning, and hugging, quickly learn that aggression is the only thing that makes the stressor disappear and helps them feel safe again. Unfortunately, this means aggression is quick to develop and worsens with time if proper steps aren’t taken to overcome FAS. Learn your pet’s signs of stress and anxiety so you can immediately take action to reduce her fear.
How to treat fear, anxiety, and stress in your pet
No pet owner wants to see a beloved companion suffering from fear, anxiety, or stress. A variety of treatments are available that can put an end to the shivering, shaking, whining, howling, panting, drooling, and hiding, but keep in mind that treating behavioral issues can be tricky and time-consuming. Every pet requires individual treatment—even in the same household—because what works for one pet may not work for another. Many pets require multiple treatment types to achieve the maximum stress-relieving effect. After we diagnose your pet with FAS, we may recommend a trial of any or all of the following treatments:
- Behavior-modification training
- Compression shirts
- Calming music
Please ask us first about any home remedies you may like to try for your pet. Some supplements may interact with your pet’s current medications, or make your pet ill.
If your pet needs help battling her fear, anxiety, and stress, schedule an appointment at our hospital, and we will help turn your fearful, drooling, whining, hiding pet into your calm, happy best friend again.