Fearing the worst- Anxiety & Phobias in your pet!


Constantly anticipating threats — often without reason — can be a sign of anxiety and phobias in your pet. Vicky Payne explains more.

As well as being a busy general practice vet, I am a fully qualified small animal behaviourist.
I undertook training with the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) where the focus was on assessing pets’ emotional states to understand, and then change, unwanted behaviours. As well as offering specific behaviour consults, this training is useful every day in the clinic.

A big concern for pet professionals is behavioural problems in lockdown puppies. Lockdown saw a boom in people deciding to acquire a puppy for the first time, and many of these puppies lacked the early rearing that readies a puppy for their new home. Added to this, it was hard to find training classes, and despite a wealth of great quality books, videos, and online resources, many new dog owners have done no training or socialisation at all. Like many vets and behaviourists, I am starting to see lockdown dogs with varying levels of anxiety about what should be normal life experiences. 

Learn to recognise fearful behaviour in your dog.

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Fear, anxiety, and phobias

Fear is a normal response to a potentially threatening situation. Puppies start to show fear between 7 and 20 weeks, and usually have another fear phase later in development. Fear is good! It keeps dogs safe, but if a dog is unable to escape or control fearful situations, they can develop anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of anticipating threats, sometimes when there isn’t anything to react to. Phobias are persistent and out of proportion fear responses.

Paco is now 18 months old and was sold as a Cockerpoo, although he is rather small and is probably a toy-breed-cross. He came to see a colleague for puppy vaccinations last year, and his owner was warned that he seemed very fearful and advised to have a follow-up phone consultation on how to safely socialise Paco. 

Unfortunately, Paco’s owner did not take this advice because he seemed happy at home. Now they want to take Paco to cafes and on group dog walks, but Paco is scared of his own shadow. When I talked to Paco’s owner it became obvious that Paco was not happy at home either. He is no longer just showing fear of new people, dogs, and environments outside; he is unable to settle at home and reacts to the slightest noise or movement. 

Paco now has generalised anxiety, which is affecting his own well-being and the relationship with his owner. He is starting a diet that will raise the serotonin levels in his brain, and we are introducing some food-finding games to raise his confidence and give him mental and physical exercise without leaving home. Paco is at the start of a long road, and may never be the outgoing companion dog his owner hoped for. He may require medication to reduce his anxiety so he can learn coping mechanisms.

Motion sickness is not uncommon in puppies and car travel can quickly start to have negative associations.

Travel anxiety

I have had a lot of enquiries about travel sickness recently, and this is another situation where fear can turn into anxiety or phobia. Motion sickness is common in puppies, but as their first car trip is often the day they leave their nest, the car can become associated with feeling sick, the negative emotions of leaving home with strangers, and lots of unexplained loud noises! My own dog, Rumer, taught me a lot as she developed severe anxiety about car travel. Not only did she not want to get in the van, she would hide on her bed and drool copiously as soon as I started getting ready to leave. Mild travel anxiety can often be managed by making sure dogs don’t travel with a full stomach, using calming nutraceuticals and ginger, and by making lots of short journeys to fun places. But for more serious anxiety, it is important to avoid car travel altogether during desensitisation. I spent about four weeks getting Rumer comfortable, playing in and around, and then eating in, the van. It was important that she could choose to get in and out to begin with. When the big test of a six-hour journey came, I used an anti-nausea medication, pheromones, and a comfy bed to make Rumer as relaxed as possible. That trip saw the end of Rumer’s travel anxiety, but showed me that fear of the car, and fear of feeling ill, could be closely linked.

Bonfire Night is often a cause of anxiety.

Noise sensitivity

Bonfire Night takes place this month, which is another source of anxiety for both dogs and owners. Again, fear of a loud bang that comes from nowhere is quite normal. But for many dogs this soon becomes anxiety as soon as the nights start to shorten. There are several good medications available now to get dogs with noise sensitivity through bonfire season, but the long-term aim is desensitisation and counter-conditioning, so these medications aren’t required. I went to see Buster the collie just before COVID-19 struck. His owner had sensibly sought advice a long time before the fireworks season started. Over the last 18 months, she has used recordings of noises paired with food and play to change Buster’s feelings from ‘Oh no, the sky is falling in’ to ‘Yes, bangs mean playtime!’ Like most dogs, Buster is not as reactive to the recorded noises as he is to real fireworks, but he now shows mild fear when they start and can be easily distracted by a game of hide-and-seek. It has been hard work, but he is now a more relaxed dog during the autumn and winter.