Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)
Elite Fear Free Certified Coach
As Agent Smith famously says in Matrix: Reloaded “Change. Is. Inevitable.”
It is impossible for us to protect our pets from some big changes in their lives, however there’s a few things we can do to help smooth it over.
What counts as big change? Events such as
Having a baby
Losing a loved one
Change in neighbours
New cats roaming
Construction work, on your property or a neighbour’s
Change in your work roster or location
just to name a few.
And signs your pet might not be coping? Look for changes, such as
Appetite – usually decreases, but occasionally increases with anxiety
Body language signals like ear position, facial tension, whale eye (dogs), pupil dilation, whisker position (cats), body and tail posture
Withdrawal from interactions
Hypervigilance or inability to settle
Lack of focus
These signs are non-specific and common to many different conditions and physical ailments that pets can suffer. It is always a good idea to have your pet’s health checked by a Fear Free veterinarian first before assuming the cause of the behaviour change is stress.
What can we do? Environmental Management
Try to make the environment as consistent for your pet as possible. If it is construction noise that is triggering your pet’s stress, consider keeping the blinds closed and playing music to try and muffle the noise, or invest in a pair of Mutt Muffs ear covers for dogs.
If it is change in schedule, try to make your individual interactions as predictable as possible, for example always asking your dog/cat for a ‘sit’ before petting, talking or feeding them. Note the cue ‘sit’ is a request not a command, and if your pet chooses not to, that’s ok. They are opting out of the interaction in that moment, so give them some space.
What can we do? Behavioural Modification and Training
Firstly, read my article “What every pet parent should be doing” about Calmness Reward Training. Supporting your pet to learn to be calm and positively affirming them for it is something that you want to be doing constantly.
Then actively training your pet to relax on cue take a little more work. Contact us to access more information about this process.
If your pet is distressed in times of separation, try to be as calm as possible on departure and arrival. Talk to them in soothing tones, have plenty of food toys ready and seek veterinary behavioural advice regarding your pet’s tailored plan.
What can we do? Medication
If your veterinarian recommends, most anti-anxiety medication has limited side effects, but incredible benefits. It is the humane choice for treatment, just as you would use pain medication for a broken leg, or anti-nausea medication to stop protracted vomiting. There are many studies that demonstrate the use of behaviour medication positively supports and accelerates behaviour modification and training.
Some of the medications available are short acting: their onset is fast (0.5-2 hours) and their duration is short (up to 12 hours). Others are long acting, and require dosing for weeks before their effects in the brain translate to potential behavioural change. Sometimes we use additional medication just for certain difficult situations, on top of the daily medication regime.
There are products such as pheromones (Adaptil & Feliway Classic, Feliway Friends), diets (Royal Canin Calm & RelaxCare) and supplements (PAW by Blackmores Complete Calm chews and Zylkene) available on the market. Some products have undergone more rigorous testing and research than others; please discuss any and all behaviour products that you are using with your veterinarian as they can sometimes interact with medications and influence treatment outcomes.
What we can do – Monitoring
Treatment (Management, Modification and Medication) may be lifelong, and if there are any household changes again, the condition can relapse. Early intervention is important. If there’s a social or physical change to the house planned (e.g. moving house, having a baby, getting a new pet), please talk to us about anticipating the change, adjusting medications and behavioural care so that your pet acclimates as smoothly as possible.
Monitoring progress is important, like any medical condition, to track trends, successes and potential pitfalls. Simply using a Traffic Light System where you mark a daily diary with a red, orange or green texter may be all the monitoring you have time for. Adding comments about triggers, difficult days, medication changes or things that worked well will be helpful.
Any kind of monitoring however is useful to celebrate the little wins when things can feel overwhelming, and help highlight the need for you to contact us if this start to go wrong.
While intended to help any pet parent with an anxious little one, this article is no substitute for a consultation with firstly, a veterinarian to ensure no physical ailments, and secondly, a qualified veterinary behaviour professional to assess your pet, their unique triggers, thresholds and capabilities, to offer a treatment plan tailored for success.