fear (noun): an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger

anxiety (noun): apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill 

stress (noun): constraining force or influence, a state resulting from a stress, especially one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium

—Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Fear, anxiety, and stress are emotions not only felt by humans—our animal companions can suffer from these sometimes-debilitating feelings as well. Here’s a guide to understanding fear, anxiety, and stress in pets, so you can work to alleviate it.

Potential triggers of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets

While anything can cause a fearful or anxious reaction in an animal, here are some common triggers:

  • New people, places, or objects — Unfamiliar people, places, or objects can bring new smells, movements, looks, sights, and sounds, and these can make your pet nervous or fearful.
  • New animals — When pets are not properly socialized or have experienced a past trauma, they can become fearful or anxious when around unfamiliar animals.
  • Loud or scary noises — Noise anxiety is common in dogs and is often triggered by thunder, fireworks, backfiring cars, alarms, sirens, vacuum cleaners, etc. But, sometimes unexpected noises, like the opening of a cardboard box or the wadding up of a piece of paper can cause a fearful response from your pet if he has had a negative experience associated with one of these noises in the past.
  • Eye contact — For some pets, when a human maintains eye contact for too long it can be unsettling and feel confrontational.
  • Being alone — Dogs with separation anxiety become abnormally anxious when they are separated from their human companions, which often manifests in destructive behaviors.
  • Car rides — If a pet isn’t accustomed to riding in the car, or he associates car rides with negative experiences (going to the groomer, getting blood drawn, etc.), the simple act of getting into the car may cause fear or stress.
  • Unfamiliar surfaces — Textures and surfaces, such as hardwood floors or grass, may cause anxiety if a pet is not familiar walking on them.
  • Children — Children can be stressful for anyone, but their unpredictable movements and volume levels can be especially unnerving to nervous pets unaccustomed to them.
  • Punishment — Shaking your finger in your pet’s face, physical contact, and displeased tone of voice can frighten a pet and cause confusion. (Stick with positive training methods, instead.)
  • Excessive affection — If your dog tries to escape every time your child runs toward him to give him a big hug, chances are the excessive affection is increasing his stress level.

Signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets

Pets are individuals, and they don’t all respond the same way when they are fearful, anxious, or stressed. While some pets pay exhibit obvious signs, others are more subtle with their discomfort.

Often, your pet will show you he is fearful or anxious through his body language, including cowering, panting, licking his lips, pointing his ears back, etc. Check out these common signs of anxiety in dogs and cats. Other signs include:

  • Urinating or defecating in the house
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Increased vocalization, including whining, barking, and yelping
  • Compulsive behaviors, including pacing, licking to the point of hair loss, and chewing extremities

How to prevent and treat fear, anxiety, and stress in pets

Depending on the source and severity of your pet’s stress, treatment and prevention will vary. In many cases, a veterinary behaviorist or qualified animal trainer may be necessary. Some pets require anti-anxiety medications, especially when a known trigger is imminent (e.g., a car ride or house visitors).

To help prevent or alleviate your pet’s anxiety, avoid situations or triggers that may elicit a response. For example, if you’re expecting house guests and you know your pet becomes anxious when people visit, provide her with a safe, quiet space in your home where she can go to get away from the source of stress. In her safe space, provide a soft bed, familiar toys and treats, calming music, and a calming pheromone diffuser, like Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats.

Also, be sure to socialize your pet from a young age. Use positive reinforcement methods, including plenty of praise and treats, while slowly introducing your pet to new people, animals, places, and experiences.

Is your pet showing signs of fear, anxiety, or stress? Call our office at 704-867-8318 for help.