Many animals suffer from anxiety the same way people do. They may not experience job stress, relationship woes, or the toll of parenting, but they have stressors of their own that can affect and limit their quality of life. It’s our job as pet parents to identify the signs of anxiety and help our animals cope.
Many anxiety triggers are present in an animal’s environment. These include other animals inside or outside the household, a lack of resources in a multi-pet household, loud noises or chaos inside or outside the household, and animals being left alone for long periods of time (whether it’s an 8-hour work day or a vacation).
Multi-pet households can be very fulfilling to all parties as long as they are managed correctly. In the case of cats and/or dogs, it is important that all animals’ basic and individual needs are assessed and met. Basic needs include resources like water, food, places of rest, tools for enrichment/play/scratching, and areas to eliminate. I’ll focus on two scenarios in which basic needs are not being met, causing stress and anxiety as a result.
Not having an adequate number of litter boxes for your multiple indoor cats is an example of not meeting basic needs. The officially adopted litter box rule is to have one more litter box than you do cats. Yes, this means five litter boxes for four cats. Why is this? Cats are fastidious, meaning they take great pride in keeping themselves clean and private. They often prefer to use a litter box that hasn’t been used, and certainly not by any cat other than themselves. Are there less particular cats? Sure! But even cats who don’t put up a fuss about this prefer the latter. Quite often, an inadequate number of litter boxes leads to one or more cats urinating inappropriately in the household. They’re stressed! They’re not trying to make you mad; they’re telling you they’re not happy. If they keep urinating in their box even though the situation is stressing them out, how could you know they needed help?
Never assume that inappropriate urination is behavioral until a veterinarian has deemed it so. There are other, more serious causes of inappropriate urination that always need to be ruled out first. This said, stress from too few litter boxes can also lead to and exacerbate these health issues, so eliminating this environmental trigger is necessary.
Another example of not meeting basic needs is feeding animals in the same area, and even out of the same bowl(s). There are many different feeding patterns adopted in households, but please know that it does stress a lot of animals out to eat together. In the case of leaving a shared bowl of food out for cats, it can cause what I call “bowl bullying.” This is when one cat in the household blocks another cat from eating because they’re food possessive. This takes place subtly, in a secret kitty language that parents often don’t see. What does this end up looking like over time? One overweight cat and one or more underweight cats. Can you guess who the “bowl bully” is? And who might be very anxious because their basic needs aren’t being met? In the case of dogs, many of them are food possessive and may lash out in aggression towards the other pet(s) if fed together. The solution? Feed them in separate rooms and pick up all bowls before letting them commingle again.
Other anxiety triggers
Other anxiety factors can include physiological stress and innate anxiety. Physiological stress occurs when an animal is sick or injured. This is where stress on their physical state affects their mental state. Same goes for humans! This can be tricky to pick up on with animals because they are designed to hide these “weaknesses.” It’s important to look for any seemingly small changes in your pet’s behavior, such as a change in appetite, energy, attitude, or elimination patterns, because these “small” changes are very big clues that your pet’s health status may be affected. Overt changes in health status, such as sneezing, coughing, and limping, are a bit easier to detect and require equal attention.
Panting (in dogs) is another clue to watch for. Panting doesn’t only signal heat; it also signals anxiety and pain. Your pet may be panting because they are experiencing both anxiety and pain separately, or because they’re anxious because they’re in pain. It’s always important to rule out underlying health disturbances when you notice any change in your pet’s behavior. Note that cats do not pant; if you witness your cat breathing with their mouth open, please seek emergency care.
Innate anxiety is a bit more complicated. Like people, some animals are more predisposed to anxiety. Don’t worry, there are Veterinary Behaviorists who can help! These are not pet trainers, but rather licensed veterinarians who specialize in animal behavior. They do home visits to analyze the environment and get a full health and behavior history on your pet; then they can implement techniques to mitigate unwanted behavior and can prescribe medications as needed. I have seen very serious cases of anxiety and aggression successfully treated by Veterinary Behaviorists in my 13 years as a Veterinary Technician.
If you have done the hard work of identifying these environmental triggers and have taken steps to better meet their basic needs, there are products you can try to help further reduce your pet’s anxiety. There are pheromone diffusers that diffuse cat and dog-specific pheromones in your house, which are calming and pleasing to pets. They can help to simmer inner-cat aggression and barking dogs. For our cats, there is a product made by VetriScience called Composure Chews. These are fish-shaped, tasty treats that contain l-theanine, colostrum, and thiamin to help take the edge off of our stressed out kitties. If you find there are multiple stressed-out pets in your household, Rescue Remedy for Pets from Bach is a blend of flower essences you can add to the shared water bowls (yes, it’s okay to have shared water bowls as long as there are multiple available).
More “in your face” anxieties include those that occur when the individual needs of a pet are threatened. A couple examples include separation anxiety and noise phobia. While these can be daily nuisances, they are also largely predictable and preventable. In addition to mitigating the environmental triggers, there are products that can help your pet’s anxiety in these cases.
CBD is one option that can help reduce anxiety from these triggers. It is not weight-based, so no matter the weight/size of your pet you’ll “start low and move slow” with the amount you give. A general rule of thumb is to begin with 1-2 mg per serving for cats and 2-5 mg per serving for dogs. The important thing is that you need to really tune in to see how it’s affecting your pet and alter the amount you give from there. CV Sciences Plus CBD for Pets (available in flavored and unflavored options) is my go-to pet CBD because it is a blend of their full-spectrum hemp with their 0% THC hemp, achieving an even lower THC content than other full-spectrum CBD products. Why is this important for pets? THC can be toxic to dogs and cats. While “there is no official safe level of exposure,” according to Rania Gollakner, BS, DVM and Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, THC toxicities in dogs and cats are known to occur from the ingestion of the marijuana plant rather than the hemp plant. Good news, all of the CBD we carry at Peoples Rx is derived from hemp!
There are also herbal options for pets suffering from anxiety. NutriCalm from RX Vitamins features amino acids and herbs that help to calm and lightly sedate in the short-term, as well as Ashwagandha to keep the stress hormone (cortisol) in check when given consistently for an extended period. Tranquility Blend from Animal Essentials is a different blend of herbs that helps to calm and lightly sedate for short-term relief.
With one of the biggest noise-producing holidays, 4th of July, coming up fast, it’s important to get ahead of your pet’s anxiety before they suffer. Signs of firework anxiety include crying, whimpering, hiding, urinating inappropriately, a decreased appetite, pacing, panting, and more. Fireworks are a trigger for many domestic pets, as well as wildlife. The use of fireworks is highly discouraged around animals, and is banned in most residential areas. If your pet is going to be exposed to fireworks, please make a trip to the vet to discuss medication options, and visit Peoples Rx to explore holistic options that will help make your pet as comfortable as possible in preparation for this stressful event. See you soon!
Wendy Jordan was a Veterinary Technician for 13 years up and down the West coast before joining the Peoples Rx wellness team. She worked in multiple facets of pet care including general practice, emergency care, ICU, nutrition, conventional and Chinese food therapy, and oncology. Animals remain her number one passion and commitment in her work.
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