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Pet Anxiety and Phobias
by Tom Farrington, MVB MRCVS Vet MFHom
Editor's Note from Cathy Alinovi: Homeopathy is a great tool in veterinary medicine. For those who know its wonders, one small dose can treat many large problems. Anxiety is one reason many pets are rehomed – not that the rehoming helps, it just means the pet parent can no longer cope. With the right homeopathic medicine, these problems can be cured and pets can stay with their parents.
Anxiety in pets manifests in many different ways. The recent registration of fluoxetine for canine separation anxiety has led to much discussion about this particular problem, but there are many other ways in which anxiety affects pets and causes worry to owners. Listed in the table, these are described as fears or phobias that arise when a pet reacts to a something that it does not understand or that it perceives might be harmful.
Common Stressors That Produce Anxiety in Pets
* Fear of separation from owner (separation anxiety)
* Noise phobias (guns, fireworks, cars and machinery)
* Storm phobias
* Fear of people (including children)
* Fear of places
* Fear of other animals
* Veterinary clinic visits
* Boarding kennels
* Car journeys
The fear response involves a variety of areas in the brain and comes from an instinctive alarm system that results in a reflex of either confrontation or self protection (“fight or flight”). In the case of an event (stimulus) that the pet finds intensely fearful, anxiety is increased and a deep seated, lasting memory of the stimulus is buried in its brain. When the stimulus is repeated, the pet is unable to make a conscious decision and adopts a fight or flight response. In many cases, it may not be just the stimulus itself, but signs that precede it that initiate the fear response.
For instance, in storm phobias, it may not just be the sound of the storm that can cause the problem—darkening skies and high winds can initiate the pet’s fear. The sensitivity of dogs to noise, and an ability to hear sound frequencies that are beyond those of the human ear is well known, as is the canine and feline sense of smell. Similarly, changes in barometric pressure may also warn pets that a storm is approaching and so initiate a fear response before the owner is aware of why the pet might be showing fear.
Pets are also very sensitive to human behavior that warns of impending anxiety-inducing events. This can be seen in separation anxiety when an owner gives signals such as picking up car keys or putting on a coat, signaling the pet that it is going to be left alone. Another example is the car trip that takes the dog to a veterinary visit, creating the anxiety that is then shown on future car trips, regardless of destination. Similarly, when owners are packing luggage to leave on a trip or vacation, pets recognize the signals, perhaps also perceiving a changed owner mental approach such as anticipation or anxiety about the trip.
Changing anxiety-inducing behaviors that are so deep seated in the brain requires an understanding of the problem and time and patience in correcting it. Because it is such a complex area of veterinary medicine, along with an absence of pharmaceuticals indicated for most anxiety problems, veterinarians are unable to offer an easy cure. This often leads to the prescribing of off-label use of pharmaceuticals which do not fully solve the problem, and which also risk side effects, such as lethargy, vomiting and depression, that the pet and owner may find worse than the problem the drug is intended to cure.
A growing area of pet care involves alternative medicine remedies, including homeopathy. The leading producer of such remedies, HomeoPet, is a long established maker of veterinary homeopathic remedies that are targeted to reducing or eliminating a pet’s anxieties. HomeoPet’s remedies are designed and prepared under veterinary supervision, providing assurance of their quality and the role they can play in veterinary medicine. It is noteworthy that HomeoPet products are tested by leading veterinary behaviorists in double blind trials that can involve hundreds of dogs. A recent survey of around 150 owners who used HomeoPet Anxiety found a satisfaction rate in their response of at least 80% in owners of dogs and cats (see figure). Importantly, there were no unwanted adverse events. The use of the remedy in these pets was to treat a variety of fears that included noise phobias, storm phobias, introduction of new people or pets to a household, and fear of car journeys including travel sickness.
While study results indicate that HomeoPet Anxiety may provide substantial improvement in phobias experienced by pets, it remains important to recognize that pet anxiety problems are often deep seated in the brain. Full correction of such ingrained problems also requires a patient approach by the owner. Owners need to understand that an inappropriate response they make toward their pet, such as aversive correction techniques or punishment, might cause an unpleasant outcome. Similarly, because pets are sensitive to an owner’s frame of mind, an owner’s anxiety will reinforce a pet’s anxiety problem. Attempts to calm the pet may also be perceived as a reward to the pet for displaying a fear response. Thus true correction of the problem requires an understanding of behavioral changes that will help the pet, including techniques (such as counter conditioning and desensitization) that teach the pet a different and acceptable response to the stimulus that provokes its fear. It is important in utilizing these techniques that the owner remain calm and relaxed.
Most anxiety problems in pets require a compassionate, relaxed and educated approach that can train the pet out of its fear behaviors. HomeoPet Anxiety can be a valuable tool in helping veterinarians to help owners to reduce or eliminate the pet’s fear and in helping to calm the pet so its training in reducing anxiety can be more successful.
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About the Author
Tom Farrington, MVB, MRCVS, VetMFHom, has a thriving practice in the southwest corner of Ireland.Tom is a qualified veterinary surgeon and qualified homeopath. He has been in practice for nearly 30 years and has worked in a wide range of practices: farm, small animal, exotic and a mixed practice of animal types and species from the exotic. For the last 20 years homeopathy has been a growing part of Tom’s repertoire of treatments and is now Tom's main practice modality, but is fully integrated with conventional medicine where appropriate. Nutrition and the removal of obstacles to cure are part of the bedrock of Tom's practice approach. Tom has formulated commercial remedies for Homeopet LLC and diets for Darlings Real Dog Food Company all of which are based on Tom’s natural holistic approach to animal care and healing.
To contact Tom, send him an email or contact HomeoPet in the US.