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Updated: 11/09/2014 11:07:55AM

Don’t fear the thunder

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Cori Murphy Dayton


Be aware of what your pet can eat off the table, especially during the holidays when food is abundant.

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With the Florida summertime weather pattern, a common complaint I hear from pet owners is that their pets are disruptive or destructive when they hear loud noises like thunder. There are many different classifications of anxiety in pets including thunderstorm, separation, traveling in cars, veterinary clinics, meeting new people, etc. … Dogs with anxiety may exhibit signs such as urinating, defecating, barking/howling, drooling, panting, pacing, chewing, and/or digging to try to escape. Escape attempts by dogs with anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury. Most dogs with anxiety try to remain close to their owners and become increasingly anxious if separation occurs. Some of these dogs crave a great deal of physical contact and demand attention from their owners.

The goal of treatment in an anxious pet is to reduce the level of anxiety by training the pet to feel comfortable and safe in the situation they are in. This can be a long intensive process especially when most owners need to deal with the damage or vocalization immediately.

Crate training or dog proofing techniques may work especially well for those dogs that already have an area where they are used to being confined. However, crates should be used with caution and close supervision in pets with anxiety because they can severely injure themselves attempting to get out of a crate. It is important to choose a room or area that does not further increase the anxiety. The dog’s bedroom or feeding area may therefore be most practical. Most importantly, punishment for destruction or house-soiling with an anxious pet is contra-indicated. Remember that the pet does not do this in spite or because they are mad at you. Punishment will only serve to make the pet more anxious.

With pets that suffer from separation anxiety, it is recommended that before any lengthy departure, a vigorous session of play and exercise is provided. This not only helps to reduce some of the dog’s energy and tire it out, but also provides a period of attention.

Once back inside and preparing for departure, the key is to avoid as many signals that indicate you are leaving as possible. These may include brushing teeth, changing clothes, or collecting keys, purse, briefcase or schoolbooks. A few minutes prior to departure, it may be helpful to provide toys and/or treats for distraction. Be certain that the distraction devices last as long as possible so that the dog continues to occupy its time until you are long gone.

Frozen treats placed in the food bowl, toys that are tightly stuffed with goodies, toys that are designed to require manipulation and work to obtain the food reward, toys that can maintain lengthy chewing, and timed feeders that open throughout the day are a few suggestions. Saying goodbye will only serve to bring more attention to the departure.

Another way to help reduce separation anxiety is by practicing short or mock departures. During mock departure sessions, the dog should be exercised then taken to its bed to relax. Give the ‘sit and stay’ command, a few toys and treats and leave.

The first few mock departures should be identical to the training exercises above, but instead of leaving the room for a few minutes while the dog is calm and distracted, you will begin to leave the home. These departures should be just long enough (seconds to minutes) to leave and return without any signs of anxiety or destructiveness then gradually begin to increase the time (e.g. 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc.). As the time of departure approaches 10 to 15 minutes, begin to include other activities associated with departure such as opening and closing the car door, turning on and off the car engine and pulling the car out of the driveway and returning.

Cats can also have anxiety, but it seems to be more poorly recognized than dog anxiety. Many anxious cats will avoid situations that are scary to them, such as running away and hiding. Cats can also show signs of vocalization, inappropriate elimination, fearful posturing, and may have very dilated pupils.

Cats can be more difficult to exercise, so leaving stimulating toys around the house (hanging CDs that reflect light, having tunnels and scratching posts), playing with laser lights, leaving a radio playing in the background, hiding small amounts of food around the house for them to search for on their own, and offering areas where they can see out windows can all be ways to stimulate them. Multiple litter boxes throughout the house is recommended so an anxious cat can have multiple areas in the house to eliminate (the general rule is plus one litterbox for every cat in the household). Cats that get really anxious can also have medical consequences. A cat that is very stressed is predisposed to lower urinary tract disease, and in the event a cat stops eating can lead to fatty liver disease.

Ruling out medical causes of anxiety for dogs and cats is advised; particularly if an anxiety has developed when there previously was not an issue. Sometimes pain or discomfort can mimic anxiety and it may be difficult to distinguish between them.

There are many therapies that may help certain animals with stressful situations. There are products for dogs (DAP collar/ diffuser) and cats (Feliway diffuser) which mimic a comforting scent used to mark their territory as safe and secure. Through certain situations which do not occur often, such as traveling on a plane, mild sedatives may be useful. Thundershirts can have variable results, but some animals feel comforted with the security of its snugness. For more advanced cases, pets may be treated with antidepressants in conjunction with behavior modifying training exercises.

Keeping a regular and consistent routine with your pet will enable them to feel relaxed in their home environment. Ignoring anxious behaviors and rewarding calm behavior can be a good starting point for many anxious pets. Exposing a pet to a situation which they are fearful of very gradually and frequently may also lessen their fear. If you have an animal that is not anxious, you can try to prevent anxiety by exposing them to new people and animals, and different situations and environments on a regular basis. This socialization can be very important, especially in younger animals, as it will help them develop mentally into well balanced adults.

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