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Overview of Fears, Phobias and Anxieties in Dogs and Cats

What is fear?

Fear is a physiologic, behavioural and emotional reaction to stimuli that an animal encounters. The physiologic reaction results in an increase in heart rate, increased respiratory rate (panting), sweating, trembling, pacing and possibly urination and defecation. Behaviourally an animal will exhibit changes in body posture and activity when afraid. The animal may engage in an avoidance response such as fleeing or hiding. A fearful animal may assume body postures that are protective such as lowering of the body and head, placing the ears closer to the head, widened eyes, and tail tucked under the body. If the animal perceives a threat, the response can also include elements of defensive aggression. Whether an animal fights or flees when frightened depends on its genetic predisposition, previous experience (what it has learned from similar situations in the past) and the environment that it is in (see below). The emotional reaction in animals can be difficult to gauge because animals are non-verbal. However, by observation of body postures and facial expressions it is possible to conclude that an animal is afraid.  On the other hand, pets may modify their behavioural responses with repeated exposure to the stimuli if the stimulus has been successfully removed by aggression or if escape has been successful.  Therefore what you see at the present time may not be the same as when the problem first began.

Is fear ever an abnormal response in animals?

In many situations it is “acceptable and understandable” for an animal to be afraid. However, there are times when animals exhibit fear when it is maladaptive or dangerous for humans. When animals are frightened they may become aggressive (fight), run away (flight), or stay still (freeze). The response a pet exhibits depends on the pet’s personality, the type of stimulus, previous experience with the stimulus, whether it is on its own property (where it is more likely to fight), whether it is in the presence of offspring or family members (where it is more likely to fight), or whether it is cornered or restrained and unable to escape (where it is more likely to fight).

What is a phobia?

This is an intense response to a situation that the animal perceives as fear inducing. The response is out of proportion to the stimulus and is maladaptive. Common phobias in animals involve noises and places. Phobic responses have physiologic, behavioural and emotional responses similar to fear, but they are extremely exaggerated. See our handout on canine fears and phobias

What is anxiety?

The human definition of anxiety is a diffuse feeling of impending danger or threat. It appears that animals can exhibit this diffuse type of anxiety, often manifested as generalized anxious behaviour in either specific situations (the veterinary hospital, new locations) or in a non-specific way (anything out of the routine schedule or environment). Anxiety is manifested by some of the same physiologic signs as fear, but also may be displayed as displacement or redirected behaviours, destructive behaviours, or excessive vocalization, and may become stereotypic or compulsive over time.

What types of stimuli might trigger fears, phobias or anxieties?

The triggers for these behaviours are as varied as there are breeds of dogs and cats. Animals may be frightened of people, other animals, places or things. Others may only respond with fear or phobia in one particular situation such as toward a thunderstorm.

What causes fearful, phobic or anxious responses?

Sometimes fear is the result of an early experience that was unpleasant or perceived by the animal as unpleasant. If the fearful response was successful at chasing away the stimulus, or if the pet escaped from the stimulus, the behaviour has been rewarded and therefore is likely to be repeated. Owners that try to stop the behaviour by providing treats or affection may actually serve to further reinforce the behaviour the animal is performing at that time.  Also, it should be noted that punishment, in close association with exposure to a stimulus might further cause fear and anxiety toward that stimulus.  If the owner is frustrated or anxious or the stimulus is threatening, this too will further aggravate (and justify) the fear.  Finally should the stimulus retreat or be removed during a display of fear aggression, the aggressive display will have been reinforced.

It does not take an unpleasant experience however for fear to develop. Any stimuli (people, places, sights, sounds, etc.) that a dog or cat has not been exposed to during its sensitive period of development, which is up to 3 months of age in dogs and 2 months in cats, may become a fear evoking stimulus. For example, the dog or cat that is exposed to adults, but not to children, during development may become fearful when first exposed to the sights, sounds or odours of young children. The pet’s genetics also contribute to its level of fears and phobias to stimuli.

Phobic responses can occur from just one exposure or gradually increase over continued exposure. In many cases of anxiety, neurotransmitter (brain chemical) function and levels may be altered and contribute to the overall behaviour. Again, learning or the consequences that follow the phobic response (rewards, escape, punishment) may aggravate the problem.

Illness, pain and the effects of aging may lead to an increase in fear or anxiety in situations where there was previously little or no evidence. These changes may change the way a pet perceives or responds to a stimulus. Age related changes in the brain (cognitive decline) or in the sensory system (hearing, sight), arthritis, diseases that affect the hormonal system such as an increase or decrease in thyroid hormones or an overactive pituitary gland (Cushing’s) and organ decline (liver, kidneys) are just a few examples of health and age related problems that might contribute to increasing fear and anxiety. Therefore, for any pet with fear or anxiety, but especially those that are intense, generalized, have any other concurrent signs or do not arise until adulthood or older age, a full physical examination and some blood tests if indicated would be warranted.

Is it possible to prevent fears, phobias and anxieties?

A good program of socialization and exposure to many new and novel things while an animal is young can be helpful in preventing fears and phobias. However, in the phenomena of “one trial” learning, an event is so traumatic that only one exposure can create fears, phobias or anxieties.  Socialization and fear prevention for dogs and socialization and fear prevention in cats are covered in separate handouts.

Owner responses when their pet experiences a new situation that could potentially be frightening are important. Calm reassurances, happy cheerful tones, and relaxed body postures of owners help pets experience new things without fear. Bringing along treats and play toys and giving them to the pet when it enters new environments (e.g. veterinary clinic, schoolyard) or when it meets new people or other pets can help turn the situation into one that is positive. Conversely, if you show anxiety, apprehension or frustration with your pet, or if you try to use punishment to stop undesirable behaviour, you will likely make your pet more anxious.  Knowing your pet and their individual temperament will help determine what situations you can and should expose your pet to.

How can these problems of fears and phobias be treated?

Each time your pet is exposed to an anxiety, fear, or phobia-inducing situation and cannot be made to calm down, the problem is likely to worsen. Finding a way to control, relax, calm, or distract your pet in the presence of the stimulus is needed to correct the problem and to teach your pet that there is nothing to be feared. A pet’s fear and anxiety will be lessened by an owner who is calm and in control.  For most cases of fear, behaviour modification techniques, where the pet is exposed to mild levels of the stimuli and rewarded for non-fearful behaviour, are utilized. For low levels of fear or anxiety, especially when the pet is being exposed to new stimuli, many pets will calm down with continued exposure, as long as nothing is done to aggravate the fear. These retraining techniques are discussed in our handout on Behaviour modification – desensitization and counter-conditioning.  Consequences that reinforce the fearful behaviours (inadvertent rewards or retreat of the stimulus) or aggravate the fear (punishment) must be identified and removed. Exposure to stimuli that have an unpleasant or negative outcome (e.g. an aggressive dog, a child that pulls the dog’s tail) also serve to instil further fear.  Drug therapy may also be a useful adjunct to behaviour therapy techniques and may be necessary in the treatment of some phobias.

***

This client information sheet is based on material written by Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB © Copyright 2005 Lifelearn Inc. Used by Clever Creatures with permission under license. March 28, 2011

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THE LOSS OF A PET

“The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief.

But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.”

Losing an animal companion is one of the hardest things we will ever experience. I’d like to say that I have a solution to getting over the grief of losing an animal close to us but I don’t know of one & would it feel right to ‘just get over’ him or her? I don’t think so. And if anyone tells you to ‘get over it’ or it’s only an animal, then stay well clear of them as they are not the person you should be keeping company with at this time.

I don’t think the grieving process should be rushed & I don’t think that you should feel that you should be recovering so quickly. Not only was this animal a part of your family, but the communication usually runs so deep that there is an extremely strong bond. Some people will never feel this bond with their animal companion, and that’s ok (but their loss) and for those of you that do feel that intense heartfelt wrenching when you think about your recently, or long lost companion that’s ok, and you should feel very lucky indeed. That level of devotion went both ways.

Below is a quote from a German Shepherd calendar I was once given.

“He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion”.

Right now might be a time that you are feeling guilty, that you think that you could have done more, should have done more, that you shouldn’t have been so strict, should have been with him or her at the time, or even worse that you had to be the one to make the decision. This is natural. Euthanasia is an extremely hard decision but we are lucky that we can make that choice to stop the suffering. Things happen for a reason and you can’t change time, so stop beating yourself up.

So now on a more positive note, what can you do? You need to function; you need to be able to carry on with life. This doesn’t mean you are not grieving or have to stop grieving. It’s just that you need to be able to function with your life around the grief.

I’ll share with you how I have coped with my losses in the past and maybe others can give their input as to what has helped them.

Crying; it’s okay!

Lots of walks; it enabled me to feel close to my dog who had passed away, especially when I did ‘our’ walks. I’m sure I sometimes heard the tinkle of her collar.

Rescue remedy (or emergency essence) you can get oral drops or room sprays; ideal for you and other animal companions in the home.

Share the memories; get together with those who shared the love with your animal companion. Laugh about the naughty things he or she did. Share a big block of chocolate or a glass of wine if that helps!

Make a scrapbook or photo album. Maybe go through your online photos and get a photo book created.

A place in the garden. Create a small garden in memory of your pet or plant a tree. If you are in a rental then perhaps plant up a large pot or rescue an old garden bench / seat and apply some paint and a bit of tlc; you could also get a plaque made up and attach it to the seat. It will help to sit outdoors and feel close to your pets special place.

Share. Go through and wash your pet’s bowls, favourite toys and bedding. Pack it up in a nice box or donate it to another animal that may be in need. I still have some of my dog’s old toys, and the special memories that go with them.

Spend time with other animals. It may be hard but perhaps visit your friends with animals, or offer to take a friends dog for a walk or sit with a friend’s cat. You may find volunteering at a rescue centre helps.

Additional Advices & Tips on Coping with Pet Loss

From Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed.

Anyone who considers a pet a beloved friend, companion, or family member knows the intense pain that accompanies the loss of that friend. Following are some tips on coping with that grief, and with the difficult decisions one faces upon the loss of a pet.

1. Am I crazy to hurt so much?

Intense grief over the loss of a pet is normal and natural. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s silly, crazy, or overly sentimental to grieve!

During the years you spent with your pet (even if they were few), it became a significant and constant part of your life. It was a source of comfort and companionship, of unconditional love and acceptance, of fun and joy. So don’t be surprised if you feel devastated by the loss of such a relationship.

People who don’t understand the pet/owner bond may not understand your pain. All that matters, however, is how you feel. Don’t let others dictate your feelings: They are valid, and may be extremely painful. But remember, you are not alone: Thousands of pet owners have gone through the same feelings.

2. What Can I Expect to Feel?

Different people experience grief in different ways. Besides your sorrow and loss, you may also experience the following emotions:

Guilt may occur if you feel responsible for your pet’s death-the “if only I had been more careful” syndrome. It is pointless and often erroneous to burden yourself with guilt for the accident or illness that claimed your pet’s life, and only makes it more difficult to resolve your grief.

Denial makes it difficult to accept that your pet is really gone. It’s hard to imagine that your pet won’t greet you when you come home, or that it doesn’t need its evening meal. Some pet owners carry this to extremes, and fear their pet is still alive and suffering somewhere. Others find it hard to get a new pet for fear of being “disloyal” to the old.

Anger may be directed at the illness that killed your pet, the driver of the speeding car, the veterinarian who “failed” to save its life. Sometimes it is justified, but when carried to extremes, it distracts you from the important task of resolving your grief.

Depression is a natural consequence of grief, but can leave you powerless to cope with your feelings. Extreme depression robs you of motivation and energy, causing you to dwell upon your sorrow.

3. What can I do about my feelings?

The most important step you can take is to be honest about your feelings. Don’t deny your pain, or your feelings of anger and guilt. Only by examining and coming to terms with your feelings can you begin to work through them.

You have a right to feel pain and grief! Someone you loved has died, and you feel alone and bereaved. You have a right to feel anger and guilt, as well. Acknowledge your feelings first, then ask yourself whether the circumstances actually justify them.

Locking away grief doesn’t make it go away. Express it. Cry, scream, pound the floor, and talk it out. Do what helps you the most. Don’t try to avoid grief by not thinking about your pet; instead, reminisce about the good times. This will help you understand what your pet’s loss actually means to you.

Some find it helpful to express their feelings and memories in poems, stories, or letters to the pet. Other strategies including rearranging your schedule to fill in the times you would have spent with your pet; preparing a memorial such as a photo collage; and talking to others about your loss.

4. Who can I talk to?

If your family or friends love pets, they’ll understand what you’re going through. Don’t hide your feelings in a misguided effort to appear strong and calm! Working through your feelings with another person is one of the best ways to put them in perspective and find ways to handle them. Find someone you can talk to about how much the pet meant to you and how much you miss it-someone you feel comfortable crying and grieving with.

If you don’t have family or friends who understand, or if you need more help, ask your veterinarian or humane association to recommend a pet loss counselor or support group. Check with your church or hospital for grief counseling. Remember, your grief is genuine and deserving of support.

5. When is the right time to euthanize a pet?

Your veterinarian is the best judge of your pet’s physical condition; however, you are the best judge of the quality of your pet’s daily life. If a pet has a good appetite, responds to attention, seeks its owner’s company, and participates in play or family life, many owners feel that this is not the time. However, if a pet is in constant pain, undergoing difficult and stressful treatments that aren’t helping greatly, unresponsive to affection, unaware of its surroundings, and uninterested in life, a caring pet owner will probably choose to end the beloved companion’s suffering.

Evaluate your pet’s health honestly and unselfishly with your veterinarian. Prolonging a pet’s suffering in order to prevent your own ultimately helps neither of you. Nothing can make this decision an easy or painless one, but it is truly the final act of love that you can make for your pet.

6. Should I stay during euthanasia?

Many feel this is the ultimate gesture of love and comfort you can offer your pet. Some feel relief and comfort themselves by staying: They were able to see that their pet passed peacefully and without pain, and that it was truly gone. For many, not witnessing the death (and not seeing the body) makes it more difficult to accept that the pet is really gone. However, this can be traumatic, and you must ask yourself honestly whether you will be able to handle it. Uncontrolled emotions and tears-though natural-are likely to upset your pet.

Some clinics are more open than others to allowing the owner to stay during euthanasia. Some veterinarians are also willing to euthanize a pet at home. Others have come to an owner’s car to administer the injection. Again, consider what will be least traumatic for you and your pet, and discuss your desires and concerns with your veterinarian. If your clinic is not able to accommodate your wishes, request a referral.

7. What do I do next?

When a pet dies, you must choose how to handle its remains. Sometimes, in the midst of grief, it may seem easiest to leave the pet at the clinic for disposal. Check with your clinic to find out whether there is a fee for such disposal. Some shelters also accept such remains, though many charge a fee for disposal.

If you prefer a more formal option, several are available. Home burial is a popular choice, if you have sufficient property for it. It is economical and enables you to design your own funeral ceremony at little cost. However, city regulations usually prohibit pet burials, and this is not a good choice for renters or people who move frequently.

To many, a pet cemetery provides a sense of dignity, security, and permanence. Owners appreciate the serene surroundings and care of the gravesite. Cemetery costs vary depending on the services you select, as well as upon the type of pet you have. Cremation is a less expensive option that allows you to handle your pet’s remains in a variety of ways: bury them (even in the city), scatter them in a favourite location, place them in a columbarium, or even keep them with you in a decorative urn (of which wide varieties are available).

Check with your veterinarian, pet shop, or phone directory for options available in your area. Consider your living situation, personal and religious values, finances, and future plans when making your decision. It’s also wise to make such plans in advance, rather than hurriedly in the midst of grief.

8. What should I tell my children?

You are the best judge of how much information your children can handle about death and the loss of their pet. Don’t underestimate them, however. You may find that, by being honest with them about your pet’s loss, you may be able to address some fears and misperceptions they have about death.

Honesty is important. If you say the pet was “put to sleep,” make sure your children understand the difference between death and ordinary sleep. Never say the pet “went away,” or your child may wonder what he or she did to make it leave, and wait in anguish for its return. That also makes it harder for a child to accept a new pet. Make it clear that the pet will not come back, but that it is happy and free of pain.

Never assume a child is too young or too old to grieve. Never criticize a child for tears, or tell them to “be strong” or not to feel sad. Be honest about your own sorrow; don’t try to hide it, or children may feel required to hide their grief as well. Discuss the issue with the entire family, and give everyone a chance to work through their grief at their own pace.

9. Will my other pets grieve?

Pets observe every change in a household, and are bound to notice the absence of a companion. Pets often form strong attachments to one another, and the survivor of such a pair may seem to grieve for its companion. Cats grieve for dogs, and dogs for cats.

You may need to give your surviving pets a lot of extra attention and love to help them through this period. Remember that, if you are going to introduce a new pet, your surviving pets may not accept the newcomer right away, but new bonds will grow in time. Meanwhile, the love of your surviving pets can be wonderfully healing for your own grief.

10. Should I get a new pet right away?

Generally, the answer is no. One needs time to work through grief and loss before attempting to build a relationship with a new pet. If your emotions are still in turmoil, you may resent a new pet for trying to “take the place” of the old-for what you really want is your old pet back. Children in particular may feel that loving a new pet is “disloyal” to the previous pet.

When you do get a new pet, avoid getting a “lookalike” pet, which makes comparisons all the more likely. Don’t expect your new pet to be “just like” the one you lost, but allow it to develop its own personality. Never give a new pet the same name or nickname as the old. Avoid the temptation to compare the new pet to the old one: It can be hard to remember that your beloved companion also caused a few problems when it was young!

A new pet should be acquired because you are ready to move forward and build a new relationship-rather than looking backward and mourning your loss. When you are ready, select an animal with whom you can build another long, loving relationship-because this is what having a pet is all about!

Article Resource: http://www.pet-loss.net/

Dedicated to Cilla, Kiah, Ace, Whiskey, Heidi and Marmalade… Lost but not forgotten.