Winston, a two-year-old Pug mix, spent the early years of his life as one of 65 dogs in a hoarding house in Tennessee. In 2017, he was rescued and brought to Chicago’s Alive Rescue, and that August, he was adopted by his now-mom, Rachel Bowen.
Bowen recalls that from the first moment she got him, Winston was terrified of everything. Even something as simple as standing outside would unnerve him.
“He’s very clingy and likes to be on my lap or held by me as much as possible,” Bowen says. “It’s rare for him to be in a different room from me. If he is, he panics and doesn’t calm down until he finds me.”
Anxiety in pets is far from a rare occurrence, even in animals who didn’t come from a background like Winston’s. While it’s difficult to say just how many dogs and cats suffer from general fear and anxiety, it’s considered a common contributing factor to many behavioral issues, including destructive chewing, elimination issues, and frequent vocalizations. In some animals, anxiety manifests in aggressive behaviors. Regardless of the signs and symptoms, it’s an issue that often starts early and can be challenging to treat.
“Anxiety is a pathological worry, nervousness, or uneasy feeling,” says David Gonsky, DVM, founder and chief veterinarian at West Loop Veterinary Care. “It can be generalized or situational,” he adds, meaning anxiety can just be a part of your pet’s basic personality makeup, or it can be triggered by specific events, like thunderstorms or separation.
Just like humans, animals who suffer from anxiety are reacting to a perceived sense of threat or danger. It’s not always rational, nor is it always easy to find the source of the anxiety, though experts have been able to identify some common threads among those animals who experience this type of pathological stress.
Speaking in terms of dogs, Lynn Brezina, CPDTKA, behavioral consultant and founder of Chicago’s CompanionAbility LLC., says that genetics do play a role, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle.
“There are some specific situations that increase the risk a dog will develop anxiety and what kind,” Brezina says. “For example, research has shown that certain breeds run a greater than average risk for anxiety across the spectrum of anxiety-related disorders than others. Research has also shown that dogs who have been rehomed numerous times before the age of 12 weeks run a greater than average risk for separation anxiety. Pet store purchased puppies run the greatest risk, because they are often moved from one place to another before they are finally [in a permanent home].”
Butkus is a four-year-old Pit Bull-type mix who has been struggling with anxiety his whole life, says his mom, Andrea Sanchez. He expresses it through constant clinginess, destructive chewing (the Sanchezes have gone through three couches in the several years they’ve had him), and stress around other dogs.
“We knew it was going to be a struggle from the get-go,” Sanchez says. Though she and her husband adopted Butkus from Peace for Pits when he was still a puppy, he had already gone through experiences that primed him for a life of anxious feelings and behaviors.
“He got pulled from his mother very early on, and then he was kept in a crate all day, all night, just 24/7, for about four or five weeks,” Sanchez says. As a result, he missed out on those all-important early days and weeks of socialization and stability.
While he’s not a behaviorist, Gonsky notes that, over the years and cases he’s seen, anxiety seems to be mostly a result of nature. “Nurture,” he adds, “has a role in alleviating or exacerbating what is already there.” Early experiences and the responses of their humans can teach animals to be fearful, as can incorrectly associating a fearful response with the exacerbation of the triggering stimuli.
For dogs like Winston and Butkus, it’s likely that they were wired for anxiety from the start, and that the instability they faced in the early months of their lives shaped and reinforced their feelings of unease and fear. As with most things in life, anxiety isn’t a black and white issue—many factors are at play. And when it comes to pets, it isn’t relegated only to dogs.
Jackie Kahn adopted her cat Boz, short for Bosworth, from Alive Rescue in August, 2015. He was presumed to be about one or two years old at the time.
From the beginning, Kahn says, Boz was friendly, but timid. “He wanted so much to play and bond, but his fear would win out and he would hide.”
“His anxiety is mainly expressed through chewing,” Kahn says. “He chews anything plastic, so my shower curtain has to be replaced regularly. When I first got him, he would also attack me when he felt insecure. Now, he grooms me instead.”
Pet parents are usually quick to recognize anxiety in dogs, but cats’ natural behaviors make it more difficult to pinpoint what’s normal and what’s a sign of something deeper.
“Cats are generally more solitary in nature and their anxiety manifests itself in different, less obvious ways than dogs,” Gonsky says. Signs of anxiety in cats are often more subtle and easier to dismiss, though there are tell-tale symptoms, including excessive grooming or pacing, highly destructive scratching or chewing, increased aggression or submission, diarrhea, vomiting, and isolation.
Similarly to dogs, anxiety in cats is both genetic and a result of early life experiences like frequent rehomings and a lack of socialization. The differences are mainly in perception.
“I think because dogs have more experiences with the public, dog anxiety is easier to understand,” Kahn says. “I feel cat anxiety can easily be ignored unless it becomes seriously disruptive.”
For her own part, Kahn says she knew what she was getting into with Boz, and she appreciates him for who he is, even if she prefers he wouldn’t chew everything in the house. She knows medication is an option, but for now, Boz’s anxiety doesn’t severely impact his quality of life, so she focuses instead on distracting him when he starts to exhibit anxious behaviors and redirecting his attention to something less destructive.
The experience of caring for an anxious pet can be stressful in its own right, but knowing how—and when— to react can help those animals who struggle.
“Anxiety tends to be progressive, getting worse over time,” Brezina says. For dogs in a moment of panic, their “brain is flooded with reinforcing hormones and neurotransmitters, so not much the people or other dogs do has [an] impact. The brain chemistry itself can become addictive, hence the reinforcing aspect.”
The best thing a pet parent can do for a pet with anxiety, and especially a young pet, is to seek treatment from a veterinarian and/or a certified veterinary behaviorist.
“The condition needs to be managed,” Gonsky says. “While treatment intent would be curative, that is often not possible. However, through behavioral modification utilizing positive reinforcement and, if appropriate, medication, we can accomplish a lot when presented with a young patient. The older the pet, while not impossible, the more difficult it becomes to permanently modify behavior.”
The cornerstone of anxiety treatment in pets is behavior modification through training and a change in routine, Gonsky stresses, though medications can help in conjunction. Medicinal approaches include traditional anxiety pills like fluoxetine and trazadone, natural supplements, pheromones, homeopathic remedies, and prescription diets. Many pet parents have also found success with hemp- or cannabis-based CBD treats and oils.
“Generally, the answer is that we can’t expect it to completely go away,” Gonsky says, “however, using a combination of behavioral modification and recommended treatments by [a professional], anxiety can be greatly reduced to the point where your pet can have a great quality of life and the signs of the anxiety are very minimal.”
For those who deal with an anxious pet on a regular basis, acceptance can go a long way. Taking our pets as they are, instead of expecting them to act in a way that is more convenient or desirable for us, goes a long way toward creating a loving home where they feel safe and supported.
“People forget that we’re also animals and we have anxiety, too… We have to try to figure out for our pets what helps them calm down,” Sanchez says. “[Butkus is] a very loveable dog, and I think that overshadows the stressfulness of his anxiety.”
Adds Bowen, “I want people to know that while it can be difficult to adopt a dog with anxiety, it’s also unbelievably rewarding. I receive so much joy each and every day that I see [Winston’s] anxiety improve, as well as when I see him overcome one of his fears.”
For anxiety, as with most things when it comes to pets, love conquers all.