What is Anxiety?
So, anxiety is most easily remembered as the ‘prediction of a doom-full event, location, object or situation’.
For instance you may be anxious when needing to enter your backyard shed when the last time you entered it, a Huntsman spider scurried across the wall in front of you. You are predicting the doom of entering the shed and you are expecting to see the same spider when in reality it is very likely no spider will be present.
Your dog may be anxious when walking past a house on a street where previously an aggressive dog has lunged at him or her through the gate of that house even though that dog may not be present every time the house is passed.
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 per month.
While anxiety is a normal and useful reaction to perceived dangers, an Anxiety Disorder is when then the anxiety is abnormal or inappropriate.
You pet may have an Anxiety Disorder if its anxiety 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.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Acute Stress Disorder (Acute Anxiety Disorder)
Acute stress disorder is a result of a person or animal experiencing a traumatic event which in humans at least, involves threatened or actual serious injury or death (of another person).
If you have an Acute Anxiety Disorder you may experience intense fear and helplessness at such times.
Various symptoms occur in humans including dissociation symptoms such as numbing, detachment, a reduction in awareness of the surroundings and desalination or depersonalize. Some people mentally re-experience the trauma and avoid stimuli that could be associated with it. Significant anxiety occurs, including irritability, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, and restlessness.
Not many of these symptoms equate to the behaviors we see in pets, but some do.
In humans, the symptoms must be present for a minimum of two days and a maximum of four weeks of the traumatic event for a diagnosis to be made.
Do pets experience this in the same way?
I think they do.
Pets often experience threatened or actual serious injury. The commonest we see is inter-dog aggression and inter-cat aggression.
If your dog was attacked by another in a dog park your dog could perceive that as a serious, life-threatening event – and yes, it could cause death.
As a consequence, if your dog showed reluctance to enter that dog park on your next visit, it is ‘avoiding that stimulus’ and showing ‘significant anxiety’.
If your cat was out one night in your garden and was attacked by the neighborhood Thug Cat with all the associated caterwauling and commotion then this is threatened or actual serious injury albeit death when one cat attacks another is rarely an immediate consequence of that.
To fit the human model, for a pet to suffer an Acute Anxiety Disorder the errant mood must be present after two days and up to four weeks.
Certainly this occurs with pets.
Pets can develop a ‘doom-full prediction’ of an event or location and get over it within a month, especially if the trauma is not repeated. In such cases the anxiety heals almost as if it evaporates but pour some ‘liquid of emotion’ onto the pet by allowing it to re-experience the same trauma and the anxiety can be prolonged for a lot longer.
With us humans, if an anxiety disorder extends beyond one month then it can develop into a generalized anxiety disorder or into a post traumatic stress disorder. With pets, we don’t formally know if the one month marker is relevant – but in my experiences, it seems to be. Our goal is always to create remedies as quickly as possible to stop the disorder growing into a more severe one which could be much more difficult to eradicate.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
In humans, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) is characterized by excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about life’s everyday normal events.
While it’s normal for people to worry about life’s general challenges, humans with GAD worry excessively with no obvious reasons for their worry.
People with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder tend to always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about common everyday events such as money matters, health, family issues, work or school.
Most of us would know someone that fits that description.
GAD develops over a period of time with humans and may not be noticed until it is significant enough to cause problems with functioning. Unlike Acute Anxiety Disorder, it is usually not associated with a clearly defined traumatic event.
In humans, GAD is evidenced by general feelings of anxiety such as mild heart palpitations, dizziness, and excessive worry. Mostly the anxiety needs to be present for more than six months for this condition to be diagnosed.
So does this occur with pets?
It is easy to argue that wild animals are genetically programmed to have a GAD. Prey animals such as sheep, cattle, and our Gazelle we mentioned earlier are always ‘on guard’ worrying in their own way about being attacked by a predator.
But our most common pets, cats and dogs, are predators, not prey animals.
In our clinics we see behaviors that if they are not GAD, they are very close.
So, we see pets that are over-reactive to the normal challenges of everyday life. We see dogs that bark excessively when a ‘butterfly sneezes in the distance’.
We see cats which are always on guard, running and hiding at the slightest stimulus. These pets certainly have an anxiety to everyday life events which is characterized by excessive reactions.
With pets, we can often see an initiating cause of their GAD.
Dogs with noise fears would be the commonest example. While we see the dog develops an anxiety when he or she can detect an approaching storm, we also see the anxiety becomes generalized to life’s normal events.
Dogs with storms react to approaching darkness of dusk because it looks like the darkness of a storm. They react to the flicking of a fluorescent light because it looks like and sounds like a lightening flash and they react to trees swaying in a stiff breeze because the trees do the same thing in a storm.
A phobia is an extreme anxiety or fear of a specific object or situation that is often disruptive to everyday functioning. Common phobias in people include fear of heights, the dark, water, enclosed spaces and animals (such as dogs) or bugs such as spiders.
People with a phobia often avoid the situation that creates their phobia. For example a person may resign from a job because they need to work in a high-rise building or to use and elevator to access their office.
Pets certainly show phobias.
For example, with dogs an anxiety of a ‘specific object’ that is ‘disruptive to everyday functioning’ would certainly include the common problem that many owners experience when trying to get their dog go into the garden if their dog was fearful of the garden.
Why would a dog be fearful of the garden? Wet grass is the commonest scenario for small dogs and can certainly disrupt everyday functioning for dogs and their owners, even to the stage of causing house-soiling.
With dogs we talk commonly about Separation Anxiety. This malady could more correctly be called 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.
In humans, a Panic Disorder is characterized by sudden attacks of intense fear or anxiety, usually associated with numerous physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, blurred vision, dizziness, and racing thoughts.
Often these symptoms are thought to be a heart attack by the individual, and many cases are diagnosed in hospital emergency rooms.
In humans the causes can be quite subtle but in some cases are caused by a previous adverse event.
We absolutely see panic disorders in pets. A common one is noise anxieties. While a pet can show a Generalised Anxiety Disorder to, for instance, thunder and may be anxious as a storm approaches, the pet proceeds to a panic disorder when the thunderstorm arrives.
At this time an affected dog does show the human signs of ‘intense fear or anxiety’ and that occurs along with the physical symptoms of hyper-ventilation, hyperactivity, a need to escape from the stimulus and sometimes the need to hide from the stimulus. Dogs that are affected cause significant damage to themselves and their owner’s property when consumed by their panic disorder. Dogs with panic disorders created by noise phobias often rip their claws from their feet in scraping at fences to escape or the back door to ‘inscape’. They regularly break their teeth (and sometimes their jaws) and cause themselves other harm.
Many owners consider their dog might ‘have a heart attack’ at the height of its panic disorder albeit this does not occur with pets.
Panic disorders also occur with cats. The most common cause would be a house-confined cat’s reaction to another cat wandering through its visually-owned territory when the house-cat looks out of a window and sees the trespasser outside.
At such times cats show intense fear and anxiety, with hissing, spitting and yowling and they will often transfer their aggression to an in-contact cat or to their owner.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is the ugly relative of an Acute Stress Disorder.
Whereas an Acute Stress Disorder is short term (less than one month) PTSD is long term – in humans longer than one month.
It follows a traumatic event where that event causes intense fear and/or helplessness.
In humans symptoms include re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares, obsessive thoughts, and flashbacks (sufferers feel as if they are actually in the traumatic situation again).
Affected people show an avoidance component where situations, people or objects that remind him or her about the traumatic event are avoided. For instance a person suffering PTSD after a serious car accident might avoid driving or being a passenger in a car.
Finally, there is increased anxiety in general, possibly with a heightened startle response where the person may be very jumpy and may be easily startled by noises.
Yes, traumatic events causing fear or helplessness are very commonly experienced by pets.
Animal abuse (human to animal) would be a typical cause. Aggressive attacks by another animal of the same species (dog to dog or cat to cat aggression) or by a different species (dog to cat, cat to dog, livestock to dog, snake to cat, snake to dog aggression and so forth) are also very common causes.
Following such harmful experiences, many pets then show behavior change which certainly lasts longer than a month and can be lifelong.
Pets experiencing traumas which cause long term behavior change often show avoidance of the situation, object, person or animal as do humans.
For instance a cat that is abused by a person may distrust all people and hide when people are near. A dog when attacked by another in a dog park may be reluctant to enter the dog park.
Just like humans, we also see pets are very reactive to noises in their environment and that show a startle response. Dogs experiencing thunder is a common example but some dogs show reactive barking when hearing other dogs near their territory (i.e. their house and garden) because they are anxious that the barking dog means they may be attacked again. So these pets are exhibiting all the signs of PTSD.
What we don’t know is whether pets re-experience the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks or obsessive thoughts. Certainly pets dream and perhaps some are re-experiencing a trauma.
Obsessions and Compulsions
Obsessions in humans are described as persistent ideas, thoughts, images or impulses which are experienced by the sufferer as anxiety provoking or distressing. The sufferer has difficulty switching his train of thought onto another topic.
We don’t know if pets have persistent ideas or thoughts that are akin to this because they can’t tell us.
But compulsions are the next step. Compulsions are observable, or covert, repetitive behaviors or mental acts which are performed to prevent or reduce the anxiety and distress of obsessions.
We certainly see repetitive behaviors with pets which are senseless and purposeless and often self-damaging.
Typical examples with dogs include:-
- Pacing, circling, spinning and tail-chasing
- Fly snapping (of imaginary flies)
- Some forms of barking
- self-chewing and self-harm
- Food-related compulsions and the licking or ingestion of non-food objects such as rocks, pebbles and the droppings of other animals
And for cats
- Over-grooming and fur-pulling
- Food related compulsions such as excessive licking of objects and fabric eating
- Pacing and circling and tail chasing (rare with cats)
- Some forms of meowing
- Wall staring
What to Do if Your Pet Is Anxious, Panicking or Compulsive
If your pet is showing any mood that is well-described by the above, act quickly because you don’t want an anxiety becoming a life-long problem
Early intervention can prevent lifelong mood changes. Try to prevent your pet re-experiencing the trauma that has affected him or her until your cure is fully implemented.