Understanding and Caring for Your Pet’s Mental Health
There are many articles about how pets help humans experience better mental health. But as compassionate, responsible pet owners, we are equally responsible for ensuring that our pets experience optimal mental health themselves experience optimal mental health. In this post, we will examine several types of pet anxiety disorders and training suggestions about how to help your pet’s mental health.
Anxiety Disorders that Affect Your Pet’s Mental Health
Separation anxiety occurs in pets who experience stress and fear when they are separated from the humans in their household. Pets can also experience separation anxiety when separated from other pets in the house.
For example, dogs who are part of a bonded pair may feel separation anxiety when they are not together, even if their human family members are present. While cats are often portrayed as loners who are annoyed by their humans, cats experience separation anxiety as often as dogs.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs
Dogs who experience separation anxiety show their stress in a variety of ways. When left alone, dogs with separation anxiety frequently vocalize their displeasure by whining, barking, and howling. Some become destructive, chewing on household items or digging near doors and windows.
Others either attempt to break out of their crates or kennels or tear down doors if they are locked in a room. Many dogs with separation anxiety drool or pant excessively. Some urinate and defecate in the house, either accidentally or intentionally, to show their displeasure. Others obsessively lick their paws, the tops of their feet, or their legs, causing lick granulomas and hot spots.
Causes of separation anxiety
In dogs, the causes of separation anxiety vary from dog to dog. This issue can affect dogs who were rescued from abusive pasts and dogs raised in loving homes since puppyhood. Separation anxiety usually occurs when a dog experiences a meaningful change in their life, and they are unable to find comfort on their own.
For example, a dog abandoned at an animal shelter by one owner may experience separation anxiety after being adopted when the new owner must leave the house for work or errands. Other dogs experience separation anxiety if their owner’s schedule changes and they are home alone for more extended periods or after a move to a new residence. Separation anxiety can occur for dogs if one of their family members moves or passes away or another of the pets in the house passes away.
Many dog trainers are concerned that dogs will experience separation anxiety because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dogs whose owners have been working from home for the last year (2020) may experience distress when their humans return to their offices and schedules. After having their owners home for a year, the dogs may not remember their old routine in which they were home alone for extended periods at a time. To avoid affecting their pet’s mental health, the owners should gradually increase the time that they leave their pet home alone in advance of returning to their office.
Prevention of separation anxiety
One of the most important things to do to prevent both dogs and cats from developing separation anxiety is to avoid making a big deal out of leaving the house or arriving back home. When you leave, simply exit the house without a dramatic goodbye. Upon your arrival home, spend ten minutes or so doing other things before paying attention to your pet.
Dogs enjoy having a consistent schedule in which their meals, their playtime, and their relaxation time all happen at the same time each day. You can help your dog’s mental health by ensuring that they have quiet periods during the day during which they relax or entertain themselves with a stuffed Kong or a chew toy. The more accustomed to their schedule, the more they will understand that being home alone is part of their schedule, including your arrival home, playtime, dinner, and bedtime.
Whether you have a puppy or have recently adopted an adult rescue dog, you should start leaving them alone for short periods of time and gradually increase the amount of time they are alone. It is recommended that you take a week of vacation from work any time you bring a new pet into your home so that you can help them adjust and start to feel confident in their new home, including when they must be left home alone.
Treatment of separation anxiety in dogs
The most important part of helping your dog overcome separation anxiety is to be patient and consistent. Dogs have limited ways to tell us that something is wrong. Because they cannot speak in words, they show us that they are anxious through the behaviors listed above. The dog who urinates, tears down a door, and chews the sofa cushion while you are at work is not a bad dog; they are a fearful, anxious dog.
If your pet experiences mild separation anxiety, you can leave a blanket or piece of clothing that smells like you for them to snuggle. You can also walk them or have a play session before leaving so that they are tired and ready to nap when you leave. Some pets feel soothed when you leave the television or a radio playing, as those are sounds that they are used to hearing when people are home with them.
Any time you are working with severe separation anxiety, it is best to partner with a professional dog trainer or behavioralist. Working with a trainer will make sure you do not accidentally make the problem worse or cause a setback to your pet’s mental health. Many humans make the innocent mistake that dogs’ minds work the same way that humans do. A dog trainer will help you understand how your pet thinks and how to help your dog become more confident and relaxed.
Anxiety in Dogs
2. Social Anxiety in Dogs
Canine social anxiety refers to the fear and stress dogs experience when meeting new dogs or encountering new people. Dogs also experience social anxiety when going into strange or new situations outside of their home.
Symptoms of social anxiety in dogs
Dogs display social anxiety in a variety of different ways. Some dogs act aggressively to the new dog or human and bark, growl, or lunge at them. Other dogs react by hiding behind their owner, in small spaces, or escaping the situation. They might whine, cry, drool, tremble, or pant.
Causes of social anxiety in dogs
Dogs can experience social anxiety if they do not have enough positive experiences with other dogs and humans, and new experiences are important milestones in their puppyhood. Social anxiety in dogs can be caused when dogs have a negative experience with another dog or human.
These negative experiences can happen during puppyhood or adulthood. When not followed up by positive experiences with other dogs or humans, these experiences can lead to social anxiety.
Prevention of social anxiety in dogs
The age of 3 to 16 weeks (about 3 and a half months) is a critical socialization period for puppies. From the ages of 3 to 8 weeks (about 2 months), puppies should be learning from their mother and littermates about how to communicate and play with other dogs. They also learn valuable information about humans during this period.
After 8 weeks (about 2 months) old, the puppies are old enough to go to their forever homes, and puppy owners should continue introducing the pup to new people and other puppies in a positive way. Puppy kindergarten sounds like it might be a silly, indulgent class, but it is an excellent way for older puppies to safely meet other dogs their own age after they have left their litter. Puppy owners should also be introducing their puppy to new experiences, like kids riding bikes or skateboards nearby or humans stopping in for a visit.
Treatment of social anxiety in dogs
Dog owners can help dogs with social anxiety by providing positive, fun experiences with dogs and humans. If your dog reacts in a positive, confident way, you can give praise and treats. It is vital that you do not erroneously reward fearful behavior, or you risk your pet becoming more anxious. Suppose your pet experiences extreme social anxiety, or you have a dog who is reactive or aggressive when you encounter dogs, humans, or new situations. In that case, you should partner with a professional dog trainer before working on a solution on your own.
Anxiety in Dogs
3. Noise Anxiety in Dogs
Noise anxiety, or noise phobia, refers to a fear of loud noises like thunderstorms or fireworks. This is a common fear that affects many pets’ mental health. In fact, social media is full of pet owners’ accounts of their pets’ reactions during summer storms or Independence Day fireworks.
Symptoms of noise anxiety in dogs
Pets who are afraid of loud noises react in a variety of ways. Many dogs shake, pant excessively, drool or pace back and forth. Dogs with extreme noise anxiety may urinate, defecate, run out of open doors, hide under furniture, or even try to break out of enclosed spaces when left alone.
Causes of noise anxiety in dogs
Most dogs afraid of loud noises developed their fear over time instead of from a single incident. Unlike humans, who know what is causing the loud noises, dogs have no idea what is causing the sound. Dogs also hear twice as many frequencies and listen to sounds four times further away than we do.
We do know that many pet owners accidentally reinforce their dog’s fear of loud noises. When pets notice a loud noise and act nervous, many pet owners try to soothe their dogs the way they might ease another human, with gentle tones and petting. However, this is rewards the dog for their fearful response, and the dog receives the message that their fear is the correct response. The human’s attempts to soothe cause more fear, even though that was not their intention.
Prevention of noise anxiety in dogs
If you know that a thunderstorm is in the forecast or that a holiday popular for fireworks is on the calendar, plan some playtime and a training session into your day so that your dog will be relaxed and sleepy when the noises are due to begin. Turn on the television and some white noise like a fan to help muffle the noises outside.
Once the fireworks or thunder begins, make sure that you do not react at all. The calmer you are, the better. If your dog hears the noise and is calm, reward the dog with a treat and praise. Do this each time your dog hears the noise without showing fear or stress. The goal of this is to have a confident dog who learns from your own reaction to the noise that it is not something to fear.
Treatment of noise anxiety in dogs
Like other types of anxiety that affect your pet’s mental health, if your dog has an extreme fear of noises, you should partner with a professional trainer. This way, you will avoid potentially making your dog’s anxiety worse. You can also meet with your veterinarian to discuss prescription medicine to calm your dog during thunderstorms or other loud noises.
Anxiety in Dogs
4. Age-Related Anxiety in Dogs
Senior dogs sometimes start to show anxiety even if Senior dogs sometimes start to show anxiety even if they were not anxious when they were young. Just like humans, your dog’s temperament can change as they enter their senior years.
Symptoms of age-related anxiety in dogs
Symptoms of age-related anxiety in dogs are similar to other types of anxiety. Your dog may whine, cry, or make other vocalizations. They might pace or wander, pant, tremble, hide from you, lick excessively, or lose their appetite. These can also be signs of pain, so it is important to take your senior dog to the veterinarian if she/he develops any of these behaviors.
Causes of age-related anxiety in dogs
Age-related anxiety in dogs can be caused by pain from arthritis, changes in their vision, hearing, and sense of smell, or dementia. Some dogs experience Sundowner Syndrome, which is a disorder that causes them to be agitated and nervous in the evening hours.
Prevention of age-related anxiety in dogs
While you cannot prevent time from moving forward, you can help your dog by providing a healthy lifestyle through all stages of his/her life. Regular vet visits, excellent quality food, plenty of love and companionship, and both physical and mental exercise are important contributors to your dog’s overall health.
Treatment of age-related anxiety in dogs
Your veterinarian can help you work on the best treatment option for a pet experiencing age-related anxiety. Some pets may benefit from prescription medicines or herbal supplements. Others can benefit from physical therapy or massage therapy. Kongs and other treats can help your senior pets with mental stimulation into their senior years.
Anxiety in Dogs
5. Fear-Based Anxiety in Dogs
Fear-based anxiety in pets refers to dogs who have phobias of certain people, animals, or situations. It is common to meet dogs who are afraid of entire groups of people, like tall men with beards or anyone over 5 feet tall. Other dogs are so scared of anything out of place in their home, like a shopping bag on the counter or a new centerpiece on the coffee table.
Symptoms of fear-based anxiety in dogs
Signs of fear in dogs include tails tucked between the hind legs, raised hackles, lip licking, yawning, ears flattened, pulling away, and avoiding eye contact. Other signs include growling, whining, submissive urination, drooling, panting, and biting.
Causes of fear-based anxiety in dogs
The causes of fear-based anxiety in pets include having a previous negative experience with a similar person, animal, object, or situation. Under socialized dogs are also likely to be fearful of any new situations or experiences.
Prevention of fear-based anxiety in dogs
Like social anxiety in pets, the more you can expose puppies and young dogs to new situations positively, the more confident they will be. The more confident your dog is, the less likely they feel fear when in new situations. Working on obedience is also helpful, as your dog will learn to trust you and look to you for guidance in new situations.
Treatment of fear-based anxiety in dogs
For dogs who suffer from fear-based anxiety, you should partner with your veterinarian and a professional trainer or behavioralist. You may need a combination of medications and work with a trainer to help your dog feel more confident and overcome his/her fear. As always, patience and repetition are crucial in assisting dogs in living a fear-free existence. A trainer can help you reward the right behaviors for helping your dog overcome their fears.
Training Methods to Improve Your Pet’s Mental Health
Dogs learn through patience, repetition, and consistency. This helps them navigate their day-to-day lives, know what to expect, and how to react in a variety of situations. And while dogs thrive on schedules and routines, a confident dog will react positively when changes occur. Positive reinforcement is a humane and popular way to train dogs. Positive reinforcement means that an action is accompanied by something pleasant or favorable, so the person or animal doing the action is more likely to do it again. Popular rewards in dog training include treats, toys, and praise.
When training dogs with positive reinforcement, it is important to reward the right behavior at the right time. When teaching an obedience command like sit or down, it is obvious that you give the reward after the dog performs the command.
However, in day-to-day life, it is less obvious. In the example we gave when discussing noise anxiety, we explained how humans often accidentally reinforce their dog’s fear of thunder or fireworks by cuddling and soothing them when they are afraid. If your dog is calm, relaxed, and confident, even if that means laying on their bed napping or playing with a toy, you can give them a treat or praise to reward that confident, independent behavior. You should avoid giving treats and praise when they are experiencing fear or anxiety because that will further reinforce their fear.
Throughout its life, working with your dog on obedience training is far more than simply training a dog to sit or stay. When you work with your dog on obedience commands or even fun tricks, you are establishing a bond with your dog and working on maintaining your pet’s mental health. Your dog eventually learns to look to you for further instruction. As a result, they will look to you when in a new situation. When you are calm, and without fear, a confident dog views their owner as its leader will be less likely to react with anxiety.
PTSD and Your Pet’s Mental Health
As sentient intelligent beings, dogs who have experienced trauma can develop Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). This disorder typically affects military dogs and dogs who have experienced natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes or victims of dogfighting or other abuse.
There are several organizations that help K9 veterans who suffer from C-PTSD. These dogs can not always be adopted out to typical pet owners. Some can live happy lives with retired members of the military, and others have more specialized needs. Saveavet, K9 Hero Haven, and Combat Canines are three incredible not-for-profit organizations doing amazing work to save these K9 heroes and help them live out the rest of their lives as beloved pets.
If you have adopted a pet who you think suffers from C-PTSD from an abusive past, or if your pet experienced a traumatic natural disaster, you should partner with a veterinary behavioralist. An inexperienced trainer or a trainer with the wrong method can do more harm and cause setbacks and additional anxiety.
Although dogs can recover from canine PTSD and live happy lives, a veterinary behavioralist will be able to help with training and any necessary medicines to ensure that the correct treatment plan is followed to improve your pet’s mental health.