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A top veterinarian shares her tips for dealing with an anxious cat or dog.

By Caroline Biggs
June 16, 2020
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Dachshund dog on leash
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Whether they're nervous about a thunderstorm, car ride, or large crowds, keeping your dog or cat comfortable while they're anxious is essential for both of your stress levels. That's why it's important to be able to identify the signs of a nervous pet and know what to do about it. "Pets communicate signs of fear, anxiety, and stress to us through body language," says Dr. Vanessa Spano, DVM at Behavior Vets.

In dogs, she says signs of nervousness can include everything from subtle behaviors like yawning and licking of the lips to more obvious ones like showing the whites of their eyes, pinning their ears back, trembling, tucking their tails, cowering, barking, growling, lunging, and biting. In cats, symptoms such as dilated pupils, pinning their ears back, hiding, flicking their tails, raising the hair on their back, cowering low to the ground, excessive grooming, hissing, and biting can be indicators of stress. "You know your pet the best, so if you have a gut feeling that your pet is uncomfortable about something—bring it up with your veterinarian as soon as possible," she says. "These fears and anxieties will affect your pet's quality of life if not taken care of."

Looking for ways to keep your furry family members cool and calm next time a stressful situation arises? We asked Dr. Spano to share her best advice on dealing with a nervous pet.

Identify the problem.

Above all else, Dr. Spano says identifying what exactly is triggering your pet's nervousness is key to treating it. "The most common causes are noise phobia, storm phobia, fear of unfamiliar (and sometimes even familiar) people, fear of other animals, fear of handling, fear of new environments, separation anxiety, and social anxiety," she says. "The best immediate action to take in this situation is to avoid the trigger if possible, or else your pet's fear is only going to escalate." 

Separate them when necessary.

If your cat or dog is fearful of crowds or unfamiliar people, Dr. Spano recommends reducing your pet's exposure to strangers as much as possible. "If having guests over is unavoidable, separate your pet in the home to give them space away from the trigger," she says. "This doesn't necessarily mean keeping your pet in a bubble its whole life, but your pet will not be able to appropriately face its fears until they have developed the coping mechanisms for that specific situations."

Create noise buffers at home.

Dealing with a dog or cat that can't stay composed during a thunderstorm? Dr. Spano suggests employing noise buffers throughout your home to help cancel out the sound. "While it's impossible to avoid a storm, you can remedy the situation by drowning out the noise with a white noise machine or other buffers, like soundproof curtains, that may help soften any loud noises," she says.

Try a weighted calming aid.

If noise buffers don't help soothe your pet during storms and other anxious times, Dr. Spano says you can try weighted calming aids, like ThunderShirt Classic Dog Anxiety Jacket (from $40, amazon.com), as another option. "These products are thought to work because of the pressure they provide," she explains. "Their weight potentially promotes relaxation through reducing the patient's fight or flight response and thus reducing their anxiety."

Talk to your veterinarian about oral supplements.

When all else fails, Dr. Spano says you can always count on your veterinarian to help come up with an oral treatment plan for an overly anxious animal. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of products on the market that contain ingredients that have not been proven to provide an anti-anxiety effect, or they contain legitimate active ingredients but not at the correct doses," she explains. "Talk to your veterinarian about stress-reducing oral supplements (like Solliquin, Anxitane, and Zylkene) as well as short-acting anti-anxiety medications or longer-acting anti-depressants, that must be dosed out correctly."

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