“Fear and anxiety is not always a completely rational emotion.”
Is your cat running around the house yowling all night? Or your dog pacing the garden for hours on end? Those might be the behaviours of an anxious pet. Every month, over 15,000 pet owners search online for inspiration on how to cure their pet’s separation anxiety and many thousands more are looking for solutions to behavioural problems. So why are cats and dogs so stressed out these days?
Is our modern lifestyle making pets more anxious?
Many more pets these days are left home alone when families go out to work so it’s perhaps not so surprising that separation anxiety is becoming a big issue. It’s sensible to use cat flaps to give your cat access to outdoors but if a cat perceives anything outdoors as frightening – such as a new cat in the area – a cat flap can reduce their sense of security indoors. Increasingly urban lifestyles can also increase anxiety for pets, presenting challenges that come with more people, more noises, more animals and new experiences.
Even getting another pet to keep a lonely one company can backfire – as competition over litter trays, toys and food bowls can also make pets anxious.
So what can you do to reduce your pet’s anxiety? Here are our top hints for keeping your cat calm and your dog cool and collected.
Reducing anxiety in cats
Litter trays – the golden rules!
Always provide ample litter trays in multiple locations. Clean the litter tray once per cat per day, as a general rule but use your discretion when appropriate! Cleaning too often can discourage use.
Timid cats sometimes prefer a covered litter tray, some like sides covered but no roof – try using the four walls of a cardboard box around the litter tray, always making sure that the cat can still access the tray.
Use a proprietary cleaner that completely eradicates odours that can attract cats back to an area. Biological washing powder is a good alternative in an emergency – always checking for colour fastness first.
If your cat is repeatedly using an area to toilet, clean well then bait it with a bowl of cat food as cats usually won’t eat and toilet in the same location.
Try to make changes gradually – if expecting a new baby play baby sounds on low volumes to accustom your pet to the noise.
Consider using anxiety reducing aids prior to any anticipated change
Try not to communicate your own anxiety by over reacting or over comforting your cat.
Make any changes in diet gradually
Always have enough food bowls for the number of cats and keep them far enough apart to avoid competition at mealtimes
Think carefully about installing a cat flap – they can be a great bonus or a source of stress. If your cat becomes anxious simply locking the flap might not be enough – some cats only feel secure when the flap has gone completely.
Provide a safe haven – either a covered area or a high perch where your cat can go and have some alone time.
If you are worried about your cat or anxiety is not resolving, do get veterinary attention promptly.
Consider using cat calming measures – such as pheromones, herbals or nutraceuticals that reduce anxiety.
Reducing anxiety in dogs
Don’t punish your dog for anxiety-led behaviours, as it will just make things worse. Ask your vet about counter conditioning (creating positive associations such as praise and reward, instead of fearful responses) and desensitisation (slowly getting your pet accustomed to what causes fear by very gradually introducing it in a non-threatening way).
When you do have to leave your dog provide toys, a comfortable bed and perhaps the radio playing in the background, to create a relaxing calm environment where your pet is able to occupy their time. An old piece of clothing you have recently worn (and don’t mind being destroyed) can also be left with your dog to provide extra comfort.
Don’t develop elaborate rituals when you leave the house that might encourage your dog to think that something might be wrong. Be calm and don’t make a fuss of your pet at this critical time. When you return also make sure that greetings are low key and don’t reinforce that absence is anything to worry about.
If there is a known event that you can tell will make your dog anxious then plan ahead. Some treatments need to be given 4 weeks in advance to make a difference.