Stressed Out

By Laura Thill
June, 2015

Humans aren’t the only ones who must cope with anxiety.

More often than not, a challenging or poorly behaved pet is suffering from some form of anxiety or stress. And, the earlier veterinarians intervene, the better. That requires asking clients some pointed questions early on in the patient’s life, according to Valarie Tynes, DVM, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and Veterinary Services Specialist for CEVA Animal Health. “By educating their clients to intervene and treat their pets early, they can avoid many behavior problems that lead to stress for the pet and owner,” she says.

The more often a behavior is repeated, the greater the chance it will become a habit, says Tynes. By intervening at the onset of the behavior, veterinarians can help prevent their patients from developing an emotional response to certain triggers. “Yet, too often, the pet owner doesn’t approach the veterinarian until the pet’s emotional response is already extreme,” she says. “For example, the dog with separation anxiety, has gone from just being worried and unhappy about the owner leaving it alone to panicking and destroying the house. We need to recognize that emotional suffering is just as essential to address as physical suffering. And, sometimes, one can lead to the other.”

For distributor sales reps, “the big thing is to remind their veterinarian customers that many pet owners are embarrassed or afraid to ask the right questions,” says Tynes. Sales reps can play an important role in helping veterinarians educate their clients, she adds.


Determining the cause

Pet anxiety – particularly with regard to dogs – is caused by a number of triggers. “For the average pet, things that commonly lead to stress include moving, a new person moving into the household or adding a new pet to the family,” says Tynes. “Really, anything that interrupts the pet’s routine can cause anxiety.” Triggers vary from one pet to the next, she says. “Some pets travel from a very young age and aren’t stressed out by this. But, for other pets that aren’t used to traveling, this is a source of stress.”

Additional pet anxieties include social anxiety, separation anxiety, noise phobias, veterinary visits, boarding – even visits to a local dog park, according to Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, director of Animal Behavior Consultations. It’s not uncommon for dogs to become anxious around people or other dogs, he says, particularly if they weren’t socialized well or were abused as a puppy.

“Secondary to social anxiety is separation anxiety disorder,” Hunthausen continues. “Most dogs have separation anxiety to some degree, but it becomes a problem when they react in a destructive manner, such as tearing apart the home, or they injure themselves by, say, trying to run through a window.” The same goes for noise phobias (in many cases, thunderstorm phobias). “I had one patient that chewed through a wall when it was left alone during a thunderstorm,” he recalls. “Again, it’s not uncommon to see [an extremely anxious] dog run through a plate glass window.”

Most pet owners know that trips to the veterinarian, the kennel or day care can lead to pet anxiety. But they may be surprised to learn that not every dog welcomes a romp in the park. “Not all dogs are social butterflies,” says Hunthausen. “Some dogs simply don’t enjoy being taken to dog parks and tremble when other dogs approach.”


Body language

Anxiety in itself is unhealthy for any pet. But, how pet owners respond to their pet’s stress-induced behavior can, in many cases, exacerbate the anxiety level. “The number one thing that causes (or increases) anxiety is people’s failure to read pets’ body language and communicate with them properly,” says Tynes. “Often, when a dog bites someone, it’s because he or she failed to read the dog’s body language, and continued approaching or petting it, even though it showed signs of anxiety or that it was uncomfortable about being touched.”

Inconsistent discipline can cause or exacerbate anxiety, she continues. “Pet owners may assume their dog understands that what it did was wrong,” Tynes explains. “But, animals generally are not spiteful and wouldn’t behave in a certain way if they thought it was wrong. In fact, dogs generally react to their owners’ anger with anxious body language.”

Not only that, punishment is only effective if applied within a moment or two of the act, she says, which is why veterinarians don’t recommend using punishment as a teaching tool. “Punishment doesn’t teach a dog what it should do,” she says. Rather, the pet owner must reinforce an alternative, appropriate behavior. “Veterinarians should educate their clients to help their pets avoid these stressful situations,” she adds. “But, about half of veterinary students graduate each year with no behavioral training. So, they don’t have good answers for their clients and can’t educate them on how to avoid anxiety.”

Hunthausen agrees that punishment can make a pet’s anxiety worse. “Yet, all too often, punishment is the first thing pet owners pursue,” he says. Instead, he recommends behavioral modification. “This involves exposing the anxious pet to small amounts of whatever it is that makes it anxious,” he explains. So, if a hunting dog is afraid of gunshot, the owner could cover a starter pistol with a towel, muffling the loud sound. As the dog becomes more and more acclimated to the sound of gunshot, the owner could gradually remove the towel. Similarly, if a dog is afraid of the park, the owner should begin by taking the dog to the edge of the park, and gradually work their way in.


The rep’s role

“Anything sales reps can do to help their veterinarian customers educate their clients is helpful,” says Hunthausen. Educational materials and handouts are important, he says. So, too, are products with data to back their efficacy, which veterinarians can offer their clients. “It’s important early on for veterinarians to establish themselves as the go-to person for animal behavioral advice,” he says.


There are many excellent tools that address pet anxiety, which sales reps can make available to their customers, says Tynes:

• Pheromones, when used early on, can help pets avoid anxiety.

• Nutraceuticals, which come in the form of tablets or capsules, can be opened and sprinkled on pet food.

• Benzodiazepines, given at low doses.

• Serotonergic drugs, such as fluoxetine (Prozac).


Drugs such as benzodiazepines and serotonin are designed to relieve anxiety without leading to excessive sedation or other side effects. And, while Prozac, Paxil Xanax and Valium are not actually approved for use in dogs, according to Hunthausen, there is a good amount of research to back them up, he points out.

“Today, pet owners get much of their information from the Internet and television commercials,” says Tynes. Often, they don’t realize is that by combining multiple products and allowing certain ingredients to interact, they can actually cause more harm than good, she adds. If veterinarians don’t know the types or amounts of ingredients a pet has received, they may overlook a potential problem. “Sales reps need to introduce veterinarians to products that have research and data to back them up, and then encourage them to get these safe and effective solutions in front of their clients.”

True, some veterinarians may object to stocking prescription products at their clinic when pet owners are heading to the store for over-the-counter products, Tynes says. But, some OTC products aren’t always supported by data. Sales reps can encourage their customers to emphasize to pet owners that veterinarians are the best source to prescribe and hand out products, and ensure they are used appropriately so that patients receive the right dosage.

“The key is for veterinarians to ensure the right products are used appropriately,” says Tynes.


An ounce of prevention

Preventing a problem from occurring is a much easier course for veterinarians to take than treating it, says Hunthausen. When veterinarians take time to discuss anxiety triggers and behavioral issues with their clients early on – and to teach them how to handle their pets, or how to exercise or socialize them – many problems can be avoided, he says. “Most behaviorists recommend that veterinarians include behavioral questions at pet visits to help ensure pet owners understand the issues and are aware of treatments,” he says.


Tynes recommends sales reps encourage their customers to ask clients some pointed questions about their pet’s well being, such as:

• How is your pet when:

• Visitors come to your home?

• You travel?

• There is a thunderstorm?

• It comes into contact with other pets?

• It is separated from you (the owner)?


“Some pet owners are embarrassed or afraid to ask the right questions, or they struggle with the stigma or side effects associated with giving their pets drugs,” Tynes says. “Veterinarians should ask these clients, ‘If your pet had a disease, such as cancer, you would treat it. So, why not treat its emotional state as well?’”




Music soothes cats’ souls

Music – particularly classical music – may be beneficial for cats in the surgical environment, according to research published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery by veterinary clinicians at the University of Lisbon and a clinic in the nearby town of Barreiro in Portugal.

“In the surgical theatres at the faculty where I teach and at the private veterinary medical centre where I spend my time operating, environmental music is always present, and is an important element in promoting a sense of well-being in the team, the animals, and their owners,” lead author Miguel Carreira was quoted as saying. “Different music genres affect individuals in different ways. During consultations I have noticed, for example, that most cats like classical music, particularly George Handel compositions, and become more calm, confident and tolerant throughout the clinical evaluation. After reading about the influence of music on physiological parameters in humans, I decided to design a study protocol to investigate whether music could have any physiological effects on my surgical patients.”

The clinicians studied 12 female pet cats undergoing surgery for neutering, and recorded their respiratory rate and pupil diameter at various points to gauge their depth of anaesthesia. The cats, which had been fitted with headphones, were meanwhile exposed to two minutes of silence (as a control), followed randomly by two minutes each of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings (Opus 11),” Natalie Imbruglia’s “Thorn” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

The results showed that the cats were in a more relaxed state – as determined by their lower values for respiratory rate and pupil diameter – under the influence of classical music, with the pop music producing intermediate values. By contrast, the heavy metal music produced the highest values, indicating “a more stressful situation.” The clinicians conclude that the use of certain music genres in the surgical theatre may allow a decrease in the dose of anesthetic agent required, in turn reducing the risk of undesirable side effects and thus promoting patient safety.

Carreira and his colleagues plan to continue their studies by looking at the influence of music on other physiological parameters, including cortisol and catecholamines, in dogs as well as cats. In the future, they hope to incorporate more sophisticated techniques, such as functional MRI and electroencephalography, into their investigations.


The study can be read here:

Topics: Product, Behavior


Subscribe to Email Updates