Taking The “Pet” Out Of Petrified

By Dr. Marty Becker

If you’re a pet parent, the chances are that your four-legged friend— a cat, dog, ferret, or another animal—is like your furry child. And like any child we love and care for, we want to ensure they are happy, healthy, and stress-free. 

Unfortunately, many pets suffer from unnecessary fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) during numerous situations. They aren’t equipped with the proper communication skills or contextual awareness to process what’s going on.

 • Noise aversion—the fear of loud or unexpected sounds—affects many pets, with thunderstorms, fireworks, or even the vacuum sending them running for cover.

 • Separation anxiety is becoming increasingly common in pets of all kinds, especially as we begin to return to the office after two years of working from home. There are also car rides, visiting the vet, and meeting new humans or other animals—just a few potentially stressful situations.

Whether they’re at the vet, the groomer, doggy daycare, or even at home in their living room, your pet has many reasons to experience FAS. A new study found that dogs often get anxious for the same reasons their human owners do.

But while many initiatives and campaigns are dedicated to pets’ physical health, not enough focus is placed on their emotional wellbeing. A terrified, scratching, yowling pet does not have to be the norm or “just the way it is” until the stressful activity is over. We can take science-backed steps to create real change in our pets’ emotional wellness, which can lower stress and help them live longer, happier lives with us. 

So, what can pet parents do to make a difference? The most crucial step is getting to the root cause of the behavior or stress reaction: Why is your pet doing what they are doing? Are they anxious? Afraid? Bored? For example, dogs naturally want to dig and scavenge—you can’t expect a dog not to be a dog. 

Likewise, cats naturally want to scratch and climb onto tall objects to survey their surroundings. Rather than scolding or punishing your pet for natural behaviors like these, it’s better to offer a safe and healthy outlet, such as a backyard sandbox, a food puzzle, a scratch mat or post, or a cat tree. Likewise, if your pet is bored and acting out in an attention-seeking manner, instead of punishing them, provide an outlet for enrichment and entertainment, such as “cat or dog TV,” interactive toys, tunnels, hiding spots, lick mats for food, and more. There are many ways to ensure your pet stays “employed” and not bored throughout the day!

Once you’ve discovered the root cause for the behavior, you can address it compassionately and kindly, so your pet understands you are still their haven, and your bond with them won’t be damaged. Then, when your pets behave in the desired manner, praise them. In other words, “Pay for what you like!” A treat, a scratch behind the ears, or even a “good boy” when a puppy sits, chews on his toys or eliminates outside all help teach the puppy how to behave to earn rewards thus.  

This is much more helpful than punishing behaviors you don’t like, mainly because punishment comes with considerable risk: It has been shown to increase fear and anxiety and thus the possibility of aggression. For example, a new study found that canine aggression and biting are often anxiety-related. In addition, punitive action can confuse the pet, and while punishment may frighten them into not doing a particular activity, it doesn’t teach them what they should do 

When introducing your pet to a new (potentially scary) environment, like a vehicle or the vet’s office, keep these principles in mind. So often hear that the vet’s office is a pet’s most disliked place, but if proper techniques are employed, and a vet is Fear Free Certified, we see pets chomping at the bit to get inside! Fear Free Certified vets use tactics, including treats, toys, and pheromones, to make your pets feel safe and at home. Some of the best things you can do to ensure a positive experience in these situations are to make sure your pet is entering the case hungry (so they will be receptive to treats), create a sense of calm and quiet (when possible), and keep the pet comfortable while considering their emotional and physical wellbeing. Again, this contributes to a more relaxed and happier pet, making it easier to administer medications, complete checkups, and get your pet back home in your arms as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that our pets have feelings just like we do, but we have the power to change our behaviors and mindsets to take care of their emotions. As pet parents, it’s our responsibility, and by following Fear Free practices wherever you are—at home or out—you can make sure your little furball is living its best life! 

Dr. Marty Becker is the nationally known pet expert, author, professor and media personality, as well as a practicing veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital. For more than 10 years, Dr. Becker has been the veterinary contributor to Good Morning America. In addition, he has hosted the nationwide PBS special, The Pet Doctor with Marty Becker. He has appeared on Animal Planet and is a frequent guest on many national network and cable TV and radio shows nationwide.

In addition to authoring many books on animals, he has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution and at every veterinary school in America. He also serves as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Most importantly, Dr. Becker devotes his life to his family along with the dogs, horses and cats of the family’s Almost Heaven Ranch in Northern Idaho.  

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