Try these solutions to help your furry friend wind down and relax.

By Hannah Harper
April 15, 2020
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It’s natural for dogs and cats to experience occasional stress when they go to the vet or interact with a strange animal. Long-term stress, however, can lead to full-blown anxiety and a host of behavioral problems. For dogs, anxiety tends to be based on a specific situation, says Christie Long, DVM, head of veterinary medicine at Modern Animal in Los Angeles. Thunderstorms, fireworks, or being left alone in the house for a few hours can be a repetitive trigger and can cause a range of behaviors from ripping apart couch cushions to nonstop barking. Anxiety in cats is a little more nuanced: “Cats often experience stress and anxiety due to a lack of stimulation in their environment,” says Dr. Long. Bad bathroom behaviors, over- or under-grooming, or hiding are signs your feline is struggling. The best solution is to be proactive. Enlisting professional help early in the process is key to finding a resolution.

Conditioning training

For separation anxiety, work on gradually increasing the amount of time you’re out of the house, leaving for a few seconds, then a few minutes, and then a few hours, until the animal seems calm during your departure, says Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas. Keep the situation light by incorporating treats and play. For fear, try to desensitize your pup to trigger noises by playing movies with the sounds of thunderstorms or fireworks. The goal isn’t to scare your dog further; if she becomes distressed, take a break.

Proper engagement

Since cats are considered low-maintenance pets, they don’t always receive the level of interaction needed to support their emotional and cognitive health. Play with your cat using interactive toys like laser pointers and feather wands. Dr. Long also suggests giving your cat access to an enclosed porch or patio so she can experience the natural sounds and stimulation of the outdoors while in a safe environment.

Calming tools

There are some products that can help ease mild anxiety and can be used alongside training or medication. Calming pheromones—odorless and colorless chemical signals that are species-specific—mimic the pheromones that feline and canine mothers release when nursing; they can have a soothing, nurturing effect on your pet, says Dr. Long. The pheromones can be distributed through collars, scent diffusers, wipes, or sprays; just make sure to buy for the right species! Another option is a compression shirt, like the Thundershirt, which gives the animal a snug feeling of being wrapped in a security blanket, says Dr. Ochoa. These tools are best used preventively, so suit up your dog in a compression shirt before a big storm or spray pheromones on your cat’s bed if you’ll be away longer than usual.

Supplements & medications

Pets with mild to moderate anxiety may benefit from nutraceuticals—dietary supplements that also help with treating a variety of conditions—which can often be purchased over the counter or at a vet’s office. For incidental anxiety related to weather or an event (Fourth of July!), a sedative may be prescribed. Pets with more severe anxiety or highly destructive behavior, however, might need an antidepressant medication prescribed by a veterinarian. Prozac is a highly effective option that is typically well tolerated with minimal side effects, says Dr. Long.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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