A QUICK GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING ANXIETY IN YOUR PET
Updated: Jan 11
Anxiety is characterized as a result of the anticipation of danger. In a sense, anxiety can be good. If your pet wasn’t domesticated and found themselves in the wild, it would benefit them. They’d be prepared for anything coming their way.
However, basic instincts aren’t always the case. At some point in your pet’s life, they experienced a traumatic event. Whatever it might be, your pet is scared to go through the experience again.
Other things like illness, physical pain, and even improper socialization can contribute to your pet’s anxiety.
Anxiety in a cat can differ from anxiety in a dog. In this article, you will learn what can trigger your pet’s anxiety, what signs you should look for, and what you can do to help.
Watch for these signs
Your pet can’t talk (duh) so it’s up to you to do the mind-reading. Not literally, but I think you know what I mean. You spend a lot of time around them so you pick up on their hints and behavior. For instance, when my chunky cat Ali meows once or twice and glares at me, it means “I want attention, now”. So I spend some time playing with her. Now when it’s “meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow” I know that she wants food and I better get on it.
I can ramble on and on about my cat, but you should try it for yourself. It’s a fun little game. You’d be surprised as to how well you know your pet.
This little trick does come in handy.
Signs of anxiety in cats
Cats are programmed to hide their pain. If your cat is doing something they haven’t done before, take a trip to your veterinarian. Allow them to rule out any medical issues. Anxiety in your cat can cause changes in their behavior and even bodily reactions.
Behavioral signs include:
This list only lists the most common behaviors. The behavior can range from mild to severe signs. This is why it’s recommended that you visit your vet if your cat displays any abnormal behavior.
Signs of anxiety in dogs
In dog common complaints include being disruptive or destructive when they’re anxious. Similar to cats, you should consider a vet visit if your dog is destructive. Your vet will rule out medical conditions.
Symptoms of distress include
Spontaneous elimination (urination/bowel movement)
Displacement behaviors: Yawning, lip licking, air sniffing, “shaking it off” like a wet dog
This same behavior may just be a sign that your dog needs to be house trained. It may even be normal behavior. If your dog is in an uncomfortable situation they can react similarly. However, it does become a problem when it’s many of these symptoms at the same time. Your dog could be in a constant state of anxiety.
What triggered your pet’s anxiety?
Many things could have triggered your pet’s anxiety. It all comes down to your pet’s fears. My family dog is scared of crowded places, but your dog can see a crowd as potential friends. My guess is Bartolo’s fear started when he was a puppy. We adopted him from a shelter where he was vaccinated, bathed, chipped, and neutered. He was surrounded by a crowd. I’m guessing he didn’t enjoy the entire process and the crowd spooked him. This is generally how the anxiety begins. When your pet can’t get away from what is frightening them it evolves into anxiety or a phobia.
Traumatic events aren’t the only cause of anxiety. Illness, physical pain, and improper socialization can contribute to anxiety. Let’s explore the different roots of anxiety.
Common triggers in dogs
At times your dog’s anxiety can go unnoticed. Start by paying close attention to their body language. Through trial and error, you can determine when they are nervous.
If your dog is calm but tries to prevent you from leaving or begins to freak out when you try to leave, they may have separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is common in dogs. They are social animals by nature so very few dogs enjoy being left alone. Boredom, loneliness, and a previous negative experience when left alone are all causes for anxiety. Old-age onset separation anxiety can also be the case. An elderly dog can have a decline in cognitive understanding, or memory, which triggers anxiety. It can cause your dog to become destructive, and howl, whine or bark excessively. They may even urinate in the house when left alone. You can be gone for an hour or even 5 minutes. However, there are things you can do to help.
Rescue/former shelter anxiety is also a common form of anxiety in dogs. Whether your dog spent 2 days or 2 years in a shelter they have memories of being abandoned. They may have experienced a traumatic event. They also had to deal with an unpredictable environment or routine. They become generally anxious. This general anxiety can transform into separation anxiety since they fear being abandoned again.
Here’s how you can help your shelter dog:
Illness-induced anxiety usually comes on suddenly in a dog that wasn’t normally anxious.
At times your dog’s anxiety may go unnoticed. The symptoms are subtle and can be shrugged off as a common characteristic of the breed. It’s very common for general anxiety to go unrecognized. At other times, for the same reason, the cause for anxiety can’t be determined. The trigger for your dog’s anxiety happened and went unnoticed. To help ease your dog’s general anxiety keep their mind and body active. Creating a predictable environment with low stimuli, along with a consistent routine, and controlled social interactions can help your dog keep calm and happy.
Common triggers in cats
Identifying stress in cats is a little different. Since your cat is programmed to hide their pain you need to learn to read their behavior. As stated by PetMD, proper socialization during your cat’s socialization period can be critical for their future. Improper socialization can cause fearful or anxious behavior in your cat. If your cat is doing something they have never done before, take them to the vet. Allow your vet to rule out any medical conditions before identifying any stressors.
Changes in your home can cause your cat to display physical stress. Your cat may overgroom, vomit, snarf & barf, have diarrhea, or perform displacement behavior. Displacement behavior can include nail-biting, stress eating, and overgrooming. Internal problems can also cause this behavior. Visit your vet as soon as your cat displays abnormal behavior to prevent any major medical conditions.
Cats are also very territorial. They claim their territory by rubbing and maybe even scratching, against your couches, doorways, and furniture. It’s their way of saying me and you own this together. As you can imagine territorial stress is possible. So how is territorial stress displayed in your cat? Well, it’s not pleasant, I’ll tell you that. Your cat will pee underneath windows, doors, doorways, or the entrance. Some cats are prone to over marking, but it's different when they have never done this. They will also avoid windows, the entrance, and even hide under the bed or the couch. Hopefully, your cat won’t get aggressive because they are prone to redirect their aggression.
Territorial stress happens, again, when there are changes in your home. Another reason is when feral cats or critters (like raccoons) are hanging out near your home. This is normally because the cats are being fed nearby. If possible, move the feeding area a few blocks away.
Moving is also one big reason for your cat’s stress. They have a hard time finding their “basecamp”. Try setting up their area first.
Another reason for your cat’s stress is new arrivals, especially untrained dogs. Untrained dogs normally don’t know how to behave around other pets. It’s not their fault, as they are only being playful but this does cause intense stress for cats.
Whether it’s another pet or a new family member, introduce your cat to the new arrival properly. Here’s a video by Jackson Galaxy to help you prepare your cat to share their space.
When your cat has a strong bond with you or another pet, and they panic when they’re separated it’s the result of separation anxiety. The cause for separation anxiety in your cat is unknown. However, it’s believed that it could be genetics and environmental factors. It’s also critical that cats are healthily socialized during their socialization period (7 to 12 weeks of age). By properly socializing your cat it can prevent any behavior issues when they get older.
When I adopted my chunky cat, Ali, I had no idea what was in store for me. It has definitely been an experience. I’m currently in the process of helping her lose weight. Aside from the fact that it depends on how deep my pockets run, it also takes time and patience. Treating your pet’s health-related problems is an investment, in this case, it’s anxiety. You will find that it is not easy, but it does pay off in the long run. Watching Ali exercise more, eat better, and be happy makes my heart full.
If you are looking to begin treatment for your pet’s anxiety, consider consulting your vet or a behaviorist. Their help can go a long way.
I created this article to help pets and pet parents just like Ali and me. I hope you can take this information and apply it one way or another.