When describing animal behaviour, “fear” and “anxiety” can be confusing terms as they are often used interchangeably.
A fearful response is an instinctive self-preservation mechanism, such as a wild animal fleeing from the sound or sight of an approaching predator. This is known as the fight-or-flight response, which is common in most species including humans.
However, if the animal survives the predator’s advances, it will become more vigilant and may take flight at any sound nearby, even if it comes from a harmless source.
The animal is now anxious – it is predicting the inherent danger of the predator’s attack. The anxiety was born from a fear-induced response.
Anxiety and anxiety disorders
Anxiety can be summed up as ‘the prediction of a potentially dangerous event, location, object or situation’.
Your dog may be anxious when walking past a house on a street where an aggressive dog has previously lunged at him or her through the gate of that house, even though that dog may not be present every time you pass by.
Your cat may be anxious you when approach him or her because in the past you have placed a flea control preparation on its neck, even though you only apply a flea control preparation to your cat once a month.
While anxiety is a normal and useful reaction to perceived dangers, an anxiety disorder is when the anxiety reaches abnormal or inappropriate or inappropriate levels.
Your pet may have an anxiety disorder if its anxious behaviour occurs in the absence of an appropriate stimulus, or where the reaction is out of proportion to the stimulus it is experiencing. Metaphorically, we talk about dogs barking when a butterfly sneezes in the distance – an abnormally high reaction to a normal everyday stimulus.
A major problem is that an anxious or fearful pet is more likely to bite. Additionally, signs of anxiety are subtle and can often be missed by pet owners.
Signs of anxiety in dogs may include:
- Licking lips profusely
- Looking away from you
- Panting profusely
- Moving slowly or away from you
- Holding its ears to the side of its head
- Refusing to eat
- Moving around continuously
- Being ‘on guard’
- Barking continuously
- Aggression or biting
- Destroying furniture
- Urinating in the wrong place
If you recognise these symptoms in your dog, especially if they are happening continuously, then it is best to talk to your vet or local animal behaviour specialist for advice. The earlier you can get help, the better the situation will be for both you and your pet.
Manifestations of anxiety in cats include:
- Spraying – even in neutered cats
- Eliminating outside of the litter tray
- Pacing back and forth
- Loss of appetite
- Pulling out fur
- Excessive meowing
- Other illnesses
When phobias develop
A phobia is an extreme anxiety or fear of a specific object or situation that is disruptive to the animal’s everyday functioning.
An example of this, and one experienced by many dog owners, is when the dog acts fearful when the owner tries to get them to go into the garden. Why would a dog be fearful of the garden?
Wet grass is a common cause of garden-related fears in small dogs and can certainly disrupt everyday functioning for dogs and their owners, even to the stage of causing house-soiling.
Separation anxiety in dogs could also be referred to as a “separation phobia” because it is an anxiety that severely disrupts everyday life and is associated with the specific situation where the dogs’ owners leave each morning and are then absent for several hours.
A dog with a fear or phobia of storms (astraphobia) may become anxious as a storm approaches, but may proceed to a full blown panic attack as the thunderstorm arrives. Dogs that are unfortunately affected by astraphobia can cause significant damage to themselves and their owner’s property when consumed by their panic disorder.
The tendency to develop phobias is often inherited and may develop no matter how you handle your pet. Anxiety and fears may also develop into phobias if the pet is repeatedly exposed to very intense or fearful events.
The best time to deal with fearful or anxious behaviour in your pet is “as soon as you can”. Your veterinarian can help you manage your pet’s environment, implement a behaviour modification plan and possibly prescribe medication. This may often prevent your pet’s fear from developing into a severe phobia.
By Provet Resident Vet
Contributor: Dr Julia Adams BVSc
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