De-stress your pet - how to keep your animal Zen

Dude, I'm like so totally chilled out
"Find the cause of the problem instead of just treating the symptoms. Go to the vet and get referred to a qualified animal behaviourist" Rosie Barclay, animal behaviourist
  • | by Abbie Laughton-Coles

No-one is immune to a bout of stress. Whether it's a presentation looming at work or a blind date you've been set up on, there are just some things that bring on the sweaty palms and churning stomach associated with sheer panic.

The feeling isn't just restricted to humans though. Our pets can get just as stressed out, especially around the firework festivities of Bonfire Night, but unfortunately they can't say what's bothering them. Well, not verbally anyway (more on that later).

Here are four common anxiety problems to look out for, with some guidance on how to help ease the panic for your pet.

Fear of fireworks and other loud noises


It's no surprise that most pets aren't keen on fireworks – random loud bangs can be pretty alarming, even if you haven't got super-sensitive ears. Dogs can also pick up on the drops in air pressure which are synonymous with thunder, all leading to one massive panic.

Try playing a CD or DVD which features firework noises or thunder, on a low volume at first so it hardly registers with your pet. Over time it'll get them used to hearing the noise, and then you can increase the volume at levels your pet is comfortable with. On days that you know there'll be fireworks, create a den for your animal where they can feel safe – in a downstairs bathroom, for example.

If they're still panicky, leave them be. "Let them escape, let them hide," said clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Barclay. "Don't do anything you wouldn't normally do."

There's no reason why you can't give them a fuss to help soothe their anxiety, but if they're not the lovey-dovey type this may frighten them even more. Also, try not to suddenly turn up the TV to ear-splitting levels to cover the noise – they'll pick up on the change in routine.

Dogs that genuinely have a phobia of loud noises could benefit from visiting the vet who can try lots of different ways of keeping them calm, including pheromone collars and medication.

Lessons my pet has taught me

Separation anxiety


Separation anxiety isn't uncommon in pooches, especially among rescue dogs, which is why you may occasionally come home to a ripped-up sofa or a puddle on the floor.

Look out for the specific triggers that cause your pet to stress out. Perhaps they recognise that when you put your coat or shoes on it means you're about to leave. It could even be something smaller, like applying lipstick or turning off the television.

Think about desensitising, which will help to gradually get your dog used to the idea of being alone. The trick is to desensitise below the threshold of when your dog gets stressed, as animals can't learn when they're panicking.

Try giving them their favourite toy before leaving the room, then coming back in before your dog has had time to react. Gradually leave it longer between when you leave and come back, but make sure you don't let them get into a panicked state. These tactics won't work overnight and it may take some time to see a difference in your pet's behaviour, so be patient.

"Find the cause of the problem instead of just treating the symptoms," said Barclay. "Go to the vet and get referred to a qualified animal behaviourist."

The good news is that your pet insurance could cover the cost of a behaviourist if you've been referred to them by a vet – check with your insurer to find out if you're covered.

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Aggressive behaviour when on the lead


Dogs may bark and lunge if they feel threatened while on the lead, but this is usually because they're frightened rather than aggressive.

Although they can't convey it verbally, dogs use their body language to show that they're upset or tense – we're just not very good at picking up on it.

If a dog is tense or angry they may lick their mouth or nose when there's no food around, bite at their paws, put their ears back or yawn when they're not tired. Look out for these subtle signs and, if your dog is displaying any of them, try to take them away from the situation that's making them panic.

"The worst thing you can do is act differently or shout," said Barclay. "It'll be a long process, but give your dog space and take them away from the other dog. Try playing a game or giving them some sausage or cheese. Don't use aversive techniques – don't stress [your dog] out. If you yank them towards you or shout, they're going to build up a negative association."

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Aggression towards other pets


Getting animals to live in the same house when they haven't been raised together is no easy task, especially for our feisty feline companions.

"If you asked cats if they would like to share a house, they would say no," said Barclay. "They can learn to live together, but they're not close."

She recommends having plenty of litter trays, food, scratching posts and places for them to hide and sleep so they don't have to fight over resources.

Although dogs are more social creatures, they aren't immune to domestic spats. As with cats, make sure they have space to get away from each other with no reason to fight over food, water and toys.

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