By Arden Moore
When facing new or strange circumstances, far too many dogs transform into scaredy-cats and far too many cats become doggone full of fright. This full-throttle fear factor kicks into high gear during the holiday season.
From Halloween to New Year’s, household routines disappear, leaving some pets filled with dread and confusion about loud house guests, odd decorations in the home, late meals and skipped daily walks that they cherish.
Lisa Radosta, DVM, who operates the Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, is among those leading the charge to give pet professionals and pet owners the tools they need to cultivate a sense of safety and security to pets 365 days a year.
She recently co-authored with Dr. Marty Becker, Dr. Wailani Sung and Mikkel Becker a new book, called From Fearful to Fear Free, that identifies ways veterinarians, pet sitters, boarding staffs, groomers, other pet professionals and families can work together to take the “pet” out of petrified in their four-legged friends. These experts bring a combined 88 years of professional experience in working directly with fearful animals.
They identify three crippling emotions in some pets: fear, anxiety and phobias.
Fear is a normal emotional response to a real or perceived threat, such as a dog dreading the anticipation of a cold bath or a cat seeing you bring out his pet carrier — a signal that he will have to go on a car ride to the veterinary clinic. These trigger an immediate response in the brain to the perceived threat. Mild-level signs include a tucked tail, trembling and hiding in the dark corner of a bedroom closet. Other less-obvious signs of fear include squinting eyes, lip licking, lifting a front paw and yawning.
Anxiety is apprehension or nervousness regarding an anticipated threat, such as what a dog is thinking when you pull your vehicle into the veterinary clinic’s parking lot. Your dog is able to make the association that for the past three times he went for a car ride, he experienced unpleasant things at the veterinary clinic. Or your pet may urinate or poop in your house or bark nonstop when you leave him home alone due to his separation anxiety.
A phobia is fear on steroids. It is an exaggerated and irrational response that can emotionally and physically cripple a pet. A far-too-common pet phobia is toward thunderstorms. An affected dog or cat can develop behavioral issues, such as fear biting, or develop medical issues, such as a weakened immune system or chronic diarrhea.
“When a dog is frightened, on the surface, we see only that he is hiding under a chair, trembling, but major events have occurred inside his body, altering the way he feels emotionally and physically and ensuring that he will never forget that particular experience,” says Radosta.
Here’s a rundown of things that can turn pets into panic puddles:
• Car rides
• Veterinary visits
• The sound of a delivery truck backfiring and smell of exhaust fumes
• The loud beeping of a smoke detector
• Vacuum cleaners, especially the self-operating types
• Strangers, especially those wearing hats or sunglasses
• Singing battery-operated Santas
• The slippery floor inside a veterinary lobby or exam room
Unfortunately, there is no single solution to aiding scared pets. And pets are not cured overnight from their fears. You first need to tap all your senses and do a candid assessment of your pet’s reactivity.
Do your best to remain calm and upbeat. Becoming impatient, yelling at your pet or forcing him into a carrier will only put him on full-fright alert.
Instead, try towel-wrapping or anti-anxiety pet vests, playing soothing music and using high-quality treats as a distraction.
“During the holidays, don’t force your dog or cat to interact with guests. Forcing them will only make them fearful of people,” says Radosta. “Instead, keep your pets in interior sanctuary rooms set up with their needs. For dogs, that includes food, toys, water, a bed, television or music. For cats, that includes a litter box, a bed, a place to go up high and water.”
You also need to take a team approach with your veterinarian and possibly an animal behaviorist or certified pet trainer for your fearful pet.
“I want pet owners to know that they can ask for what is best for their pet in a respectful way and expect to have an honest and fair conversation with their veterinarian,” says Radosta. “There are more and more veterinarians becoming certified in the Fear Free practice of handling pets.”
Your pet may need over-the-counter supplements, prescriptions as well as behavior modification. Effective medications to address fear, anxiety and stress in pets include:
• Zylkene, a supplement that contains casein, a milk protein. It can be given before identified fear causers, such as a trip to the groomer or a follow-up veterinary visit.
• Adaptil, a dog-appeasing pheromone available in a plug-in diffuser, spray or collar. It contains chemicals that mimic relaxation in some dogs. The cat version is known as Feliway and comes in a plug-in diffuser or spray.
• Trazodone, Valium and Xanax, anti-anxiety prescriptions designed to be given before an anticipated fearful event, such as a thunderstorm or veterinary visit.
• Prozac, Zoloft and Clomicalm, medications prescribed to be given every day to help keep a dog in a steady, calm state.
“Stress happens to everyone, people and pets, so you have to decide how you will handle it,” says Radosta. “For example, you can’t change the smells in a veterinary clinic, but you can condition your dog to relax on a mat. And that mat can go anywhere with your dog.”
Arden Moore, founder of fourleggedlife.com, is an animal behavior consultant, editor, author, professional speaker and master certified pet first-aid instructor. She hosts the popular “Oh Behave!” show on petliferadio.com. Learn more by visiting www.ardenmoore.com.