The U.S. is a nation of animal lovers with over 85 million families owning a pet. For many, the pet is an indispensable member of the family, sharing in times of celebrations and providing emotional support in times of need or loss. Pets can reduce our stress levels and our sense of loneliness, and even someone living alone can find a companion with a pet. Pets can also boost self-esteem and promote positive emotional development for children, in particular.
However, having a pet comes with responsibility and a need to care for and nurture the pet, providing it with a loving home. Pet owners need to ensure their pets are kept healthy, with plenty of exercise and nutritious food, love and affection and a happy home environment. Pets require time, energy and money – they are a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
Many pets are creatures of routine and consistency—habits that aren’t always part of our modern lifestyles. We change jobs, change routines, change houses, change cars. Whether there is a new member of the family or just an occasional visitor, the new noises and smells can bring on anxiety for pets.
Many will agree that any family is only as happy as its least happy member, and this can be true even when it comes to an unhappy or stressed pet. From extended internet searches, to visits with pet behaviorists and trips to the vet, it can be a worrying time trying to determine the cause of a pet’s anxiety and finding a solution can be even more difficult.
1: Getting Your Pet Moving
Interaction with your pet is vital, whether petting or stroking, playing with, or just talking to your pet. The interaction will build up a relationship, one that your pet can find reassuring. Daily interaction with your pet can decrease their stress levels and increase their confidence. It can, particularly in dogs, reduce boredom which can be a major cause of nervous or destructive behavior.
Agility classes can be beneficial for both the dog and owner, increasing fitness levels and getting rid of excess energy. It can help strengthen the dog’s muscles, improve coordination, and increase endurance. They can help build trust between the owner and dog, reinforcing basic obedience commands, improving communication and improving the dog’s behavior.
For those who don’t think agility classes are for you, it is nonetheless important to provide frequent, regular exercise for your dog. Pet obesity is an increasingly common condition and it has been estimated that as many as 56 million cats and 50 million dogs are overweight or obese in the U.S. Obesity can potentially cause serious complications, such as, respiratory problems and joint problems, so it is important to provide your pet with nutritious food and regular exercise.
Cats should also have adequate exercise in order to remain healthy and happy. Cats that have access to the outdoors are more likely to stay fit, able to prowl the neighborhood, hunt and just investigate. This may not be practical for all cat owners, particularly if living in busy traffic areas, though. Cat trees, perches, scratching posts and toys can all be beneficial in getting your cat moving, providing them with stimulation throughout the day.
2: Creating a Stable, Loving Environment at Home
Providing a stable home for your pet is another way to ensure your pet stays stress-free. Pets like a familiar place to call home, where they know where everything is and have their own space where they can go if family life is getting a bit too much. Not everyone will have a spare room to dedicate to their pets, but a small, quiet space where the pet can have some privacy can be beneficial. There are a variety of pet beds on the market but an old, familiar blanket will do just as well.
If you are a family with young children, then keeping noise levels to a minimum can be a challenge and this is another reason why pets should have their own private space. Noise can be a major cause of anxiety in pets and it is important to be aware of the noise levels in the house. Not all noise levels can be controlled and building construction, traffic, or fireworks can all be unfamiliar sounds that your pet can find frightening. A calm, reassuring voice can help calm your pet down but other soothing sights and sounds can be effective. Calming music or television can be used to relieve pet’s anxiety but other music and sound therapy products are available.
Although providing your pet with a stress-free environment is vital, many may overlook the need for safety in the home, especially if the pet is spending extended time at home alone. A new baby may bring on a flurry of activity to meet safety guidelines, but a pet has similar requirements. It is important to store cleaning materials and food in another room, or in a cupboard high-up, which is not accessible by the pet. Ensure all electrical cords are taped down so that a pet cannot easily get tangled. Keep trash cans out of reach or invest in a dog-proof one. Shoes, children’s toys, and ornaments should be kept out of reach from your dog.
Keeping objects out of reach that could be dangerous to your pet in the home and any outdoor spaces can save their lives but temperature can also be a killer. If the temperature is too hot or cold for a human to be comfortable, it’s too severe for your pet. Hot temperatures, combined with humidity, can cause dehydration and heatstroke. It has been estimated that heatstroke in dogs has a mortality rate of 50%. On the other end of the scale, temperatures lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit can cause hypothermia or frostbite. It is important to ensure the temperature in your home is suitable for your pet, keeping them comfortable depending on the weather.
3: Make Use of Medicinal Products to Treat Anxiety
When all else fails, a pet owner may consult a veterinarian who can suggest and prescribe several anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications. Combining these drugs with specific training to defuse the stress reaction to the offending situations, a pet can develop confidence to ignore the stressors and eventually, medication may no longer be needed.
Putting your pet on medication is not for every pet owner, and many may prefer to consider more natural alternatives. There are several dietary supplements, such as the amino acid, tryptophan, which plays a role in optimal brain function and behavior. Pheromone therapy is another alternative, whereby collars, sprays, treats, supplements and even diffusers contain chemicals transported in the air that mimic odor molecules which have a mood-altering effect. When used for relieving anxiety, the pheromones can produce a sense of calm in dogs.
One of the newer products on the market for treating anxiety in pets is CBD, or cannabidiol, an active ingredient in cannabis derived from hemp. It has been a hot topic throughout 2019, with an increasing following voicing its benefits. The majority of pet owners view CBD as a natural alternative to prescribed medication for anxiety, but the product has also been cited as beneficial for pain management and allergies. According to Packaged Facts’ 2019 Survey of Pet Owners featured in the report Pet Treats and Chews in the U.S., 3rd Edition, 11% of dog owners and 8% of cat owners have used cannabis (CBD/hemp) supplements or treats for their pets.
Although research on CBD is still in its infancy, many veterinarians are now recommending CBD products for anxiety. CBD oil works by interacting with the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoid system to soothe and calm anxiety naturally. The cannabinoids interact with a series of receptors in the body and modulate things like pain, anxiety, and nausea. Unlike some prescription medication for pets, CBD administered with the proper dosage has no known life-threatening side effects like liver or kidney damage.
Whether you have a pet currently suffering from anxiety or are just looking to provide the best home you can for your pet, there are a lot of options available. Sometimes your pet may experience acute anxiety and there’s a range of things you can do to alleviate the stress in their home environment. For pets with longer or more severe cases of anxiety, it is important to seek advice from a veterinarian. As a pet owner it is your decision whether you feel that your pet’s anxiety warrants medication, and further still if you would like to put your pet on prescription medication or explore natural alternatives.
Giving your pet the time and attention it deserves are paramount to maintaining a happy animal. We cannot always control what happens in our lives and changes are inevitable, but making sure your pet has a safe, comforting space will help keep your pet calm in these times of change. It is important to build up a relationship with your pet, getting to know their unique personality is one of the fun things about having a pet. For many pet owners, having pets can be a very rewarding experience, providing hours of fun with a lot of love and affection.
-- by Eoin Connolly on behalf of Dogviously
Connolly is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. When he's not researching, he enjoys walking, reading, and supporting Manchester United (difficult though that is at the moment)