If your dog or cat is anxious, there are other options besides drugs.

Most of the time, our pets teach us how to face the world with a positive, happy attitude. They’re excited to go out in the morning, eager to eat, thrilled to see us, tickled to get a treat – most pets are pretty happy most of the time.

Have a thunderstorm roll into your area, however, or take out the carrier for a trip to the vet, and you may see totally different behaviour. Cowering, shivering, whining, wetting the floor, growling and running to hide are all signs of anxiety in animals. If your pet suffers from separation anxiety, you may see more serious symptoms, like diarrhoea and skin lesions.

Your vet may recommend anti-anxiety medication, but what if you don’t want to put your pet on drugs?

Behaviour modification
You may want to try to teach your pet not to be afraid of whatever it is he is afraid of. If your dog is terrified of you when you’re wearing a hat, for example, and scurries to the other side of the house before you even put it on, you may be able to gradually get him to understand that you’re the same, friendly person you always are, and that you just look a little different.

You can start by showing the dog your hat, and speaking in soothing, calm tones. If your dog wants nothing to do with it, just leave it nearby on the floor or on the table, where he can see it. Keep picking it up and speaking in soothing tones. When your dog gets to where he doesn’t care anymore, if you pick up the hat, put it up on your shoulder. Again, speak in soothing tones. And continue gradually until you have it near your head, then just barely on your head, and finally completely on your head, until your dog is no longer afraid.

Sometimes, particularly if you rescued your pet from the Humane Society or animal shelter, you may have a situation in your hands that is not going to go away. It’s hard telling what the animal was exposed to before he came to live with you. Over time, fears may gradually diminish, but on the other hand – such as aging animals – fears can actually become worse, especially fears of loud noises.

Similarly if your dog is worried about having his nails cut/trimmed use the same technique. In a quiet voice place the nail clippers near his food bowl, get him to sit and stay.  Do this at each and every meal time. The sight of the clippers will become “dinner” and a Pavlovian response should come about naturally after a few weeks. Graduate to the nail clippers touching each toe before dinner is produced. After a couple of weeks then change to clipping just a small bit off a nail and then feed dinner. Always end on a calm tone.

The key is to relax and never punish your pet for displaying signs of fear, such as wetting the floor, as that will on escalate the problem. Try some of these ideas instead.

Some natural solutions

1. Music: Particularly if you are going to be gone, certain types of music may help calm your pet. Through a Dog’s Ears (TADE) is a clinically researched auditory series that features piano music shown to help calm dogs. According to study from Colorado State University, classical music may reduce stress in dogs. Heavy metal music, on the other hand, amplifies their anxiety and leads to more barking and shaking.

2. Thundershirt: You’ve probably seen the ads for this product. So far, people are saying that they work. The gentle constant pressure of the garment, which you wrap around your pet, has show in company surveys to improve symptoms in anxious, fearful or over excited dogs. Other similar products include the Anxiety Wrap and the Storm Defender.

3. Massage: You know how a massage makes you feel relaxed? It can do the same thing for your pet. In fact, many veterinarian offices now offer massage treatments, but you can do it yourself, as well. Just three to five minutes can be extremely beneficial. According to the Penninsula Humane Society, those animals that are massaged regularly are adopted more quickly than those who aren’t – because they are more personable and relaxed with people. The benefits are two fold, as studies have shown that time with your pet can also help reduce your stress levels. Make sure you’re calm and relaxed before starting, then simply start with the shoulders (avoid the head) and use slow, even strokes.

4. Diet: Some hyperactive animals are behaving that way because of the food they are eating. Foods with synthetic preservatives, meals, and byproducts can make anxiety worse. Pet owners often note a reduction in anxious behaviours after they switch from a high carbohydrate to a high protein diet.

5. Exercise: Many times, animals are overly anxious because they’re not getting enough exercise. When was the last time you walked the dog, or played with your cat? Both are usually calmer and more relaxed after a little workout which is of course, good for you, too! If your pet tends to be anxious as a rule, exercise becomes even more important.

6. Toys: Pets may exhibit symptoms of anxiety because they are bored. Spend time training them to do simple commands (sit, down, stay for dogs) and regularly bring out new toys. The Kong toy, for example, which has a treat inside rubber ball, can be good option for dogs that can keep them busy for hours. Once your pet gets bored with one, then put it away and pull out another one. Then resurrect the old toy weeks later and your pet may enjoy it like new.

7. Herbs: Certain herbs are known to help calm your pet’s nerves. Try Valerian to help soothe dog anxiety (150mg for smaller dogs, 300mg for medium dogs and up to 600mg for larger dogs). Skullcap, kava, passionflower, and chamomile mixed with dog or cat food, can also help. Talk with your vet about dosage.

8. Aromatherapy: Scents can have a calming effect on our pets, just like they do on us. Particularly if you use the scent when your dog is relaxed, he may grow to associate that scent with relaxing times. Try a few drops of lavender, neroli, marjoram, rose, sweet orange, and vanilla on part of the pet’s bedding, or on cloth that you then rub over your dog’s neck and chest.

9. Acupuncture: Acupuncture can be just as helpful for your pet as for humans. If you have a particularly anxious pet that isn’t responding to the other remedies, you may want to try acupuncture.

10. Personal stress relief: Our pets react to our emotions, so if you’re stressed, your pet will be too. Are you stressed out when you leave the house? Do you act like you’re worried about your dog? If so, the pet will pick up on your feelings. When your animal is anxious, don’t make a big deal of it. Act as you normally do, and think distraction – get out a favourite toy, or work with your animal on obedience commands. When you come home, be calm. Take the dog for a walk, or go take a nice, warm bath. Keeping your own emotions calm will help your pet to be relaxed as well.

Dr Elaine Cebuliak

Dr Elaine is a highly experienced holistic vet and pioneer of Animal Wellness in Brisbane. She also assists with many charitable projects in Australia and in Bali.

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