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Identifying Anxiety in Your Pet

A conversation with veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Andrea Tu, Medical Director of Behavior Vets of NYC

We’ve come a long way in understanding anxiety for humans, but what does this mean for our furry companions who may also experience this? Depending on your pet and their unique behavior, there can be a number of options to help manage. At Mixlab, our job is to make your pet the happiest they can be while providing expertly-mixed meds for all! We’ve compiled a handy list of symptoms that could be pointing towards anxiety.
Dogs can show some tell-tale behavior changes when experiencing anxiety such as:
  • Yawning
  • Licking/chewing paws
  • Air licking
  • Panting
  • Persistent drooling
  • Whining
  • Depression
  • Inappropriate urination and defecation
  • Trembling
  • Aggression
  • Barking and howling
  • Excessive grooming
  • Pacing and restlessness
Cats are a little more elusive with their behavior changes, as many of our cat owners know, but we’ve got you covered:
  • Hissing
  • Diarrhea
  • Urinating and defecating outside the litter box
  • Excessive grooming
  • Hiding
  • Trying to escape
  • Less active or playful
  • Trembling
  • Destructive and aggressive behavior
Your veterinarian will help you diagnose any issues and, if they believe it’s anxiety related, they may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist to get a more focused diagnosis. With the help of a specialist, you will get an in-depth understanding and treatment of the underlying struggles your pet is facing. To help our discussion, we’ve asked the Medical Director of Behavior Vets of NYC, Dr. Andrea Tu, a veterinary behavior specialist and American College of Veterinary Behaviorists Resident to answer some of the common questions you may have about anxiety!
If you feel like your pet is experiencing anxiety, feel free to reach out to Mixlab and speak to a veterinary pharmacist or your pet’s primary veterinarian for resources or advice!

Thanks for joining us today Dr. Tu. We’re happy to have you!

Dr. Tu: Thank you for having me! I’m happy to be here!

It’s hard for pet parents to know that their pet’s behavior is a result of anxiety. What can untreated anxiety often look like?

Dr. Tu: Any behavior problem that is happening with your cat or dog is probably based on anxiety. It’s important to know that anxiety is defined as a “chronic anticipation of fear from happening”. It can even manifest in a few different ways, but there are some subtle signs of fear and anxiety that can go under the radar, such as: yawning, air licking, and subtle turning of their head away. These chronic signs of discomfort and anxiety, in combination with one another, can eventually manifest as common behavior problems like aggression or separation anxiety. A constantly anxious pet can even end up developing an anxiety condition such as a phobia. That’s why it’s important to seek out behavior therapy if you or your primary veterinarian notices anxiety in your pet to see how we can help your pet be the best version of themself!

What can pet parents typically expect when pursuing behavior therapy?

Dr. Tu: It can seem scary when getting started with behavior therapy, but we want to make it as easy as possible for the pet and pet parents. Before beginning an appointment we get a list of the target problems that are being noticed by the owner and a detailed background history that includes: where the pet is from, family dynamic, home environment, etc. After we get that information we do an examination, in which we rely heavily on to rule out medical concerns that might be driving the behavioral problems and this also establishes a patient-doctor relationship. After our physical exam we will have a conversation to discuss the behaviors in extensive detail and set a goal with the pet parent that we would like to see for their pet.
Once we reach a diagnosis and set our goal, we go ahead and start the recommended treatment plan. At our practice we use a 3-pronged approach. This involves:
Medications/Supplements. A lot of treatments involve medications and can be a combination of one or more medications. There is often a trial and error phase when treating after a diagnosis to find the “sweet spot” for the pet’s needs, which is completely normal. Supplements can be added to the mix as well. It’s important to note that some pets can be on just medication or just supplements, it all depends on the diagnosis.
Training. In conjunction with medications, we pair the patient with our specially trained behavior consultants, which are specialized trainers that have gone through additional schooling and education to better meet pet’s needs. Behavior consultants help teach pets alternate, healthy coping mechanisms for their anxiety.
Safety & Management. This is our final approach and it means respecting and understanding the pet’s needs and emotions for the best situation possible. Generally this means being smart about safety when it comes to a pet. For example, wearing a basket muzzle out on the streets if a pet lunges at people or other pets on the street. This shouldn’t be considered a negative mark against the pet but to be understood as a necessity for their safety and those around them that may trigger an anxious behavior action.

We went over the 3-pronged approach, is training recommended with most therapy protocols?

Dr. Tu: It definitely should be! With any behavior veterinarian, it’s always going to be recommended. As we discussed, I recommend starting medication and/or supplements in combination with training. Medication helps bring down some of the responsiveness and then the training is able to take over. This way coping mechanisms are able to be learned when it wasn’t possible before because the anxiety was so high for the pet. And with the help of our behavior consultants, your pet can learn alternate coping mechanisms to aid their anxiety. Unfortunately, medications or supplements alone don’t fix anxiety. It may help in the moment, but to fix chronic behaviors, training is highly recommended.
“All of our behavior concerns are based on anxiety.” - Dr. Andrea Tu

What other effective ways do you recommend that will help reduce anxiety outside of behavior therapy?

Dr. Tu: There are many ways to help anxiety at home, but every option may not be a good fit for a pet. I’ll start by saying that scolding or punishing is not a recommended method to reverse these behaviors and in most cases can make the behaviors worse. Your pet isn’t exhibiting these behaviors out of spite but because something has caused them anxiety. All of our behavior concerns are based on anxiety. There are methods that you can try at home to help aid in anxiety related conditions.
Some other ways to help reduce anxiety as a pet owner are:
  • A great way to help anxious cats or dogs are diffusers. These plug-ins are especially helpfList in newly adopted pets or when moving to a new home In fact, it’s been shown that it can take a pet at least 2-3 months to get used to the new environment. They work by slowly permeating dog or cat pheromones into the space and creating a calming environment.
  • Specialty behavior diets that are depending on a pet’s condition. It’s a good idea to speak with a veterinarian to see what is appropriate for your pet depending on the condition.
  • ThunderShirts are well known and some pets do respond really positively to it. I recommend testing out the effects with a tight t-shirt first and if your pet tolerates it, then it may be worth purchasing. If your pet is struggling and doesn’t like wearing clothes, then it won't be a worthy investment.

Since medication is often a big part of behavior therapy, what do you recommend if the pet is having trouble taking the medication?

Dr. Tu: If a pet won’t take the medication, then I would recommend compounding it into a flavored treat or liquid for them. Compounding is a safe and recommended method of receiving medication as it’s the same drug, but made into a different form by a pharmacist. The last thing we want is to struggle giving medication to a pet already suffering from anxiety and we want to make this easy for both the parent and the pet. That’s where you guys come in!

We’re definitely experts at that! So, with all the protocols we’ve discussed, how far along in treatment can pet parents typically see improvements?

Dr. Tu: It’s all dependent on the medication being used and the pet’s condition. We could see changes as quickly as 4-6 weeks after the first round of medication, or even sooner than that. Other medications that are meant to work quickly can give you improvements, or relief, in behavior as soon as the first dose. Most patients can reach a point where the owners are happy with the results in 6-8 months, which we can then start talking about long-term management.

Now that a pet has reached the goal that was set, what does the lifelong management of anxiety look like?

Dr. Tu: Thankfully, it doesn’t necessarily have to be lifelong. If you’re able to maintain the goal behavior for at least 6 months, then we could start discussing tapering off the medications to see if our lessons stuck. The majority of my patients are on these medications long-term, but we very rarely see negative effects so most of my clients will continue with the medication approach. The mindset is usually, “Why disrupt what’s working?”. Most owners will recognize eventually that medications are supplementing something that the pet needed all along. Weighing the pros and cons of staying on medications, it’s beneficial to not rock the boat and have a lapse in their behavior once they’re doing well.

We know that veterinary behaviorists are hard to come by. What do you recommend for someone who doesn’t have access to a veterinary behaviorist such as yourself in their area?

Dr. Tu: Although it is ideal to have the pet in person so we can establish a patient-doctor relationship, we can sometimes work with your veterinarian remotely to help manage your pet's anxiety. If you’re not in the region, still reach out to us! We have virtual options available that we are very happy to go over with you. *link Dr. Tu’s practice here*

There's been a lot of buzz around CBD (cannabidiol) the past couple years. And it’s starting to gain attention in the pet care world. What are your thoughts on CBD as an effective therapy option for pets?

Dr. Tu: That’s a great question and one I get very often as the world of cannabis evolves and gains mainstream attention. At this time, I do not recommend it as an effective therapy option. Unfortunately there aren’t enough studies on CBD for pets to be used as a treatment option for anxiety or any medical ailment. With CBD being too unregulated, there is a chance that trace amounts of THC can be included, which is highly toxic to both cats and dogs. Once there are more studies, regulation and information I’ll be open to it as a treatment, but my priority is and always will be the health and safety of the pet.

Dr. Tu, we can’t thank you enough for your time and for helping all of us understand pet anxiety much better.

Dr. Tu: You’re very welcome and thank you for having me. I really hope this helps owners understand anxiety better and what options they have available.