Animal behavior is a very interesting subject and there has been a vast amount of research focused on better explaining the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ actions of our domesticated animals.
It is important to note that ‘behavior’ is influenced by several components, including genetics, environment, and life experiences. When diagnosing an animal with a behavioral disorder, it is also crucial to look for any underlying medical causes of the behavioral issues. For example, elimination problems (house-soiling) could be a sign of gastrointestinal and/or urinary disease. Animals suffering from chronic pain can often exhibit distressing behaviors; therefore, a veterinarian should perform a physical examination in addition to discussing the behavioral
Clinicians have studied a variety of behavioral issues including: aggression, anxiety, destructive behavior, elimination problems, and cognitive dysfunction. This article will briefly discuss common aspects of anxiety – what it is, how animals exhibit it, and a few tips on managing it.
What is anxiety? You may know it as that ‘stomach turning’ sensation before boarding an airplane, or maybe the worry that ensues when you see the ‘flashing blue lights’ behind you. Well, in veterinary medicine, anxiety is a behavioral term that is defined as “the apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune, which may be accompanied by both behavioral and somatic signs” (The Merck Veterinary Manual, 10th ed.). Essentially, the animal is exhibiting abnormal behavior and/or physical signs in response to a stressful stimulus or anticipation of a stressful event.
What can anxiety look like? You may have an image of a dog growling and salivating, or maybe a cat that is hiding with the ears pinned back. Common signs of anxiety include: vigilance, hiding, tail tucking, pacing, shaking, and looking away from the threat. Anxiety can also lead to variable effects on health resulting in anorexia (especially in cats), skin conditions (self-mutilation and compulsive licking/grooming), sleep disorders, and psychogenic polydipsia (increased water consumption). If you believe your pet is experiencing signs of abnormal behaviors, take note of:
-the actual behavior itself (a video of the behavior can be helpful in diagnosis)
-the frequency of the behavior (hourly, daily, weekly)
-any patterns or changes in level of behavior intensity
-any environmental or housing changes that may be relevant
-any activities or corrective measures that stop the behavior
What are treatment options for anxiety? You may be frustrated and feel that your pet is just ‘different.’ Take a breath and remember that behavioral issue did not develop overnight and while they may not be solved immediately, most behavior problems can be improved over time. Often, anxiety is managed with a combination behavioral modification techniques and pharmacotherapy (medications prescribed by a veterinarian). When working with your pet, remember to avoid any punishment-based training techniques, as these can increase aggression, fear, and avoidance behavior. Here are a few positive techniques you may be able to try at home:
-Exercise is important for the health of any pet (and human!). Try to provide daily exercise for your pet.
– Playing with familiar toys, engaging in games, or practicing obedience may help distract your pet from stressful situations.
-If your pet is anxious when you leave, give them a long-lasting delicious treat to consume in your absence. A Kong-toy stuffed with food works well.
For future reference:
There are even specialized veterinary behaviorists (board-certified veterinarians) who exclusively treat clinical behavioral problems in companion animals. http://www.dacvb.org/
Training protocols: If interested, we can help with a protocol template developed to help you, and your pet, develop a more structured schedule for training.