Try smart strategies will help animals stay confident and free from anxiety.
From skittish cats to fearful pups, anxiety makes life tough for pets—and for the people who love them. It can have a real impact on a pet’s health, too. “The number one reason for pets not visiting the vet as often as they should is fear,” says certified dog and cat trainer Mikkel Becker Johnson, CPDT-KA, co-author of From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias and resident trainer at Fear Free Happy Homes “Number three is stress for the owner.”
A jumpy cat or tentative dog is obviously stressed. But anxiety in pets can also manifest itself as “misbehavior”—a cat that’s not using its litter box, a dog that’s destructive when left alone, or excessive grooming in both, for example. “A lot of behavior issues are related to fear, anxiety, and stress,” says Becker Johnson. Here’s how you can help.
Is your pet safe if he takes a bite of bread?
“Unpredictability is unsettling for a pet,” says Becker Johnson, and animals that know what to expect tend to stay calm. Feed them, play with them, and walk them at the same time each day (even weekend changes in routine can throw pets off ). Also, make sure all family members treat pets consistently. Training helps, too—even for cats. “It teaches the predictable behaviors and routines they can rely on,” says Becker Johnson.
Knowing what to expect does something else very important: It builds confidence. Separation anxiety is especially common in dogs, and training can boost confidence to help a pup feel more comfortable on its own. For cats, playtime is an especially important anxiety buster, particularly when Fluffy “hunts” her favorite laser pointer or feather dancer. “A cat’s prey drive is its most confident behavior,” says cat behaviorist Mieshelle Nagelschneider of The Cat Behavior Clinic and author of The Cat Whisperer. “The best thing you can do is trigger its prey drive several times a day. It’s a great way to counteract fear and anxiety.” Sharing a household with other felines also makes many cats anxious, says Nagelschneider. But there are things you can do to help. Feliway is a spray or diffuser that mimics the natural, calming pheromone a cat deposits by rubbing its face on an object to mark its territory. Another strategy: Brush all of your cats with the same brush a few times a day. That creates a group scent for your cats, Nagelschneider explains, which helps them share the household more harmoniously.
Be a Calm Pet Parent
Animals—especially dogs—are masters at reading the body language and emotional temperature of their people. Staying calm and confident yourself is one of the best things you can do for your pet. “When we’re anxious and upset, they pick up on that,” Becker Johnson says.