This month I’d like to talk a little bit about anxiety in our cats and dogs. We are currently in the season associated with the highest anxiety levels in a lot of our pets. Many of them are terrified of fireworks and thunderstorms. The 4th of July is right around the corner, and this time of year thunderstorms are expected nearly daily. Anxiety is a leading cause of behavioral complaints, including destruction of property, incessant barking and inappropriate elimination (not using a litter box), and like in people can negatively affect your pet’s health. We now have quite a few options to tackle anxiety, including behavior modification and equipment, supplements and medication. Let’s discuss each a bit.

Behavioral modification is another word for training. Essentially, we want to teach the pet that whatever is causing the anxiety, is really not so bad. This takes time and patience. It is most effective for anxiety-causing occurrences like nail trims and visiting us at the clinic. While possible, this is much more difficult for things like fireworks and thunderstorms. In this case, training equipment like the Thundershirt® can be a big help. The Thundershirt® works by “hugging/squeezing” the pet. If any of you are familiar with Temple Grandin PhD and her work with relieving animal stress prior to slaughter, you know that she has been a huge advocate of physical pressure as a way to relieve stress ( Don’t forget that exercising your pet can also decrease your pet’s anxiety when it is related to a longer lasting stressor, such as a change in the home.

Behavioral modification is often not adequate to help the pet. There are several types of supplements and pheromones that can help just take the edge off. Pheromones are a means of communication of which the animal is not consciously aware and are species specific. We have pheromones for both dogs and cats. We use them daily to help relax many of our patients during their visits to us. While we use the spray on blankets and bandanas, in the home pheromone-infused collars or diffusers are frequently better options since they work 24/7. They can be helpful to alleviate anxiety when environmental circumstances change, including but not limited to changes in the family (both pets and new babies or children/adults who leave the home), home remodeling, an owner home less than previously, etc.

There are many behavioral supplements currently on the market. The main ingredients include alpha-casozepine (a milk protein), L-tryptophan (a serotonin precursor), L-theanine (green tea ingredient). I don’t have the space to go deeply into any of these, but for some pets when given daily can really help, especially when we don’t know when a thunderstorm might pop up. Some supplements take a few days to build up in the body enough to help, others can be used on an as-needed basis.

There are also medications available to help with anxiety. Years ago, pets that barked or paced constantly during a storm or fireworks were sedated with acepromazine. We now know that that can actually make matters worse. Ace does not relieve anxiety, it just somewhat paralyzes a pet. That pet is just as terrified but can’t move! Horrible. I won’t get into the multitude of much better, truly anxiety-abating medications that we have right now, in part because like with everything, there is no perfect answer and you need to make the decision with your vet based on your pet’s specific problems.

And a reminder, PLEASE do not wait until July 3rd to remember that you pet needs some help to get through the fireworks! If you have any questions about what option might be best for your pet, please give us a call!

Angela Bockelman, DVM, PhD