Anxiety and its big brother, fear, are often overlooked causes of behavioral problems in dogs, cats, and other companion animals. In fact, whenever one of my clients mentions that a pet is behaving “poorly” the first thing I do is go on a search for a reason for that animal to be anxious (or bored, but that’s a topic for another day).

Owners often have trouble understanding my obsession with anxiety. After all, we might be talking about a dog that is acting aggressively or a cat that is urinating outside of the litter box. Surely, anxiety can’t be playing a role in cases like these, can it? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as “painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind, usually over an impending or anticipated ill.” I like this definition. Think of it in the context of canine aggression. Doesn’t it make sense that a dog who is about to lash out in defense of his food or in response to a person or other dog has an “uneasy mind” and is “anticipating ill”? The same could be said of a cat who is avoiding her litter box because she previously had a bad experience while inside.

Determining whether or not fear is at the bottom of a problem behavior is vital. When animals are afraid and acting “badly,” we need modify their environments so their anxiety is lessened and/or build their self-confidence by:

  • showing them that they can handle watered down versions of what is causing them to become anxious
  • rewarding them for staying calm
  • gradually increasing the intensity of the anxiety-provoking stimulus so long as they remain calm

Punishment plays no role in treatment of behavioral problems that are rooted in anxiety. Any kind of aversive stimulus simply confirms that the animal has a right to be nervous in the first place and will reinforce the undesirable behavior rather than lead to its resolution.

Because punishment is so often the wrong response to a behavior problem, it is best to avoid it completely. Of course this is easier said than done. When faced with a “misbehaving” pet, it is so easy to become upset and lash out. I experienced this myself recently when my horse became difficult to handle after another horse had been added to the herd. I was attempting to groom him but he was so anxious at being separated from “his girls” he would not (could not) stand still. After nearly being stepped on for the umpteenth time, I snapped, yelled at him, and jerked his lead rope. Did this help him calm down? Of course not. He became even rowdier since I now appeared to be part of the problem. I apologized to him, and gave up on the grooming session for that day. Eventually it became clear that the only way to ease my horse’s anxiety was to move him out of this environment. Now that he lives at another facility, he is back to his normal, easy-going ways.

A veterinarian with expertise in behavior problems can help determine whether or not anxiety is playing a role in a pet’s behavior and design a treatment plan that takes into account that individual’s unique set of circumstances.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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