Helping pets cope with anxiety

Dr. Kate Lawton

Many common situations are difficult for pets, including kennel stays, house moves, arrival of a new pet, baby, or visitors, sudden noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms, travel, vet or groomer visits, and the holiday period. Many cats do not cope well in a multi-cat household. There are many ways our pets can respond to new and challenging situations, and not all animals will react in the same way, or find the same experience difficult.

There are many different products available to help with our pets' anxiety, ranging from environmental modification to natural supplements to pharmaceutical support. We often make recommendations in a stepwise fashion to figure out the best solution for your pet.

In some mild cases, a pet can work thru their anxiety with desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization means to make less sensitive. Its goal is to eliminate or reduce the reaction that an animal has to a specific thing. It involves a gradual process of exposing an animal to a less intense version of the thing or event he fears, in such a way that his fear isn’t triggered. For instance, if your pet is scared of thunderstorms, then there are audio recordings that can be played at increasing volume. So a desensitization plan starts with exposure to the least scary version of the feared thing and gradually moves to stronger versions until full or normal exposure is reached. To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning just means to re-teach the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with something good, so that it predicts good things for the animal. As soon as the dog or cat sees the fearful object, we give him a delicious treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. Over many repetitions, the animal learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen! Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, animal, event, place, or object. Desensitization is often combined with counterconditioning because it’s almost impossible to teach a positive association to something if the dog is actively experiencing fear or showing aggression. So we expose the animal to a weak version of the feared or disliked thing (desensitization), and give him delicious treats (counterconditioning). Over many exposures, the thing is gradually made stronger (for example, closer, louder, or faster) and always followed immediately with treats.

Some owners have reported that ThunderShirts are very helpful in taming their pet’s anxiety. ThunderShirt uses gentle hugging to calm your dog or cat. ThunderShirt’s gentle, constant pressure has a dramatic calming effect for most dogs and cats if they are anxious, fearful, or overexcited. Based on surveys completed by over two thousand customers, over 80% of dogs and cats show significant improvement in symptoms when using ThunderShirt. Experts believe that pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system, possibly by releasing calming hormones such as endorphins. Perhaps worth a try.

Pheromones are often recommended as part of the treatment plan for anxiety. Pheremones are chemical signals produced by animals for the purpose of intraspecies communication. For cats, a product called Feliway has proven quite useful. Feliway is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure. By mimicking the cat’s natural facial pheromones, Feliway creates a state of familiarity and security in the cat's local environment. As a result, Feliway can be used to help comfort and reassure cats while they cope with a challenging situation, and help prevent or reduce the stress caused by a change in their environment. Feliway is commonly used in cases where stress has led to inappropriate urination. In one study, the use of Feliway spray stopped this behavior in one-third of the households, and improvement was noted in 57%. Feliway is available as a spray and as a convenient plug-in diffuser.

There is also a pheromone product marketed for dogs called Adaptil, which is a synthetic version of Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). DAP is released by lactating moms to give puppies a sense of well-being and reassurance. The pheromones are embedded in the plastic collar and the dog’s body heat helps to emit the odorless pheromone over the course of 30 days. These collars are especially helpful for dogs going to a kennel, introducing new pets to the household, or any other source of low-grade anxiety.

We also offer oral neutroceuticals (Composure and Zylkene) that target an anti-anxiety response in the brain. These supplements can be used safely in conjunction with the above products for a multi-modal approach.

Composure is recommended for dogs exposed to stressful situations. Its formula contains three main ingredients that work together to support calming and relaxation without affecting the dog’s energy level or personality. It is both non-sedative and non-addictive. The C3TM colostrum calming complex supports stress reduction and cognitive function, L-Theanine helps the body produce other amino acids to bring certain neurotransmitters back into balance, and B vitamins (thiamine) affect the central nervous system to help calm anxious animals. Composure Bite-Sized Chews are available in a delicious chicken liver-flavored chew to provide easier delivery. It also comes in a liquid formulation for small dogs and cats.

Zylkene is a novel product derived from casein, a protein found in milk which is known to cause relaxation in newborn puppies and which can help support dogs and cats through difficult times. First released in 2008, Zylkene is a relatively new product, but it has already gained popularity among veterinarians and pet owners everywhere as a safe anxiety-busting alternative to benzodiazepines. The medicine is a great, natural way to help your pet cope with stressful situations. Zylkene is easy to give – simply open the capsule and mix the palatable powder with food or a treat. It is only given once daily and is fast-acting. Zylkene has not been associated with side effects such as memory loss or sedation, and is hypoallergenic, preservative free, and lactose free.

In severe cases of anxiety your dog may need something stronger or in addition to the options described above. It is typically recommended that you try milder alternatives first, but you may ultimately need to ask one of our veterinarians for a benzodiazepine prescription. The benzodiazepine class of drugs includes well known medications such as Valium and Xanax.

If your pet is experiencing fear or anxiety, please call us to discuss which products may work best for their individual situation. Anxiety does tend to worsen if no action is taken to correct the fear, so please do not hesitate to let us know. We are here to help!