House and Home

Are You Stressing Out Your Pet?


We all want our pets to be happy and healthy, and we usually do everything we can to make sure they are. But sometimes, our lifestyles can really put our furry friends on edge — without even realizing it. We asked Victoria Wells, senior manager of behavior and training at the ASPCA, for some helpful tips on how we can help them keep calm.

The important thing to realize is that “Cats and dogs are creatures of habit,” says Wells. She explains that if you have a busy work schedule that suddenly changes, you might see behavior issues pop up, simply because of those changes.

Stress, fear or nervousness can manifest in many different ways. Wells explains that dogs may display symptoms of separation anxiety by pacing, excessive barking or chewing furniture. Cats, on the other hand, may begin to relieve themselves in places other than the litter box like the sink or bathtub. They may also develop inappropriate predatory issues such as swatting at people when they walk by.

To help minimize stress or anxiety in a pet, Wells says it’s essential to set up a regular feeding schedule, but if you’re not always home, she suggests investing in an automatic feeder with a timer.

Aerobic activity is also key. “It will make your dog or cat more calm throughout the course of the day, whether your schedule changes or not.” It also releases endorphins and helps maintain better mental health.

Certainly speak with your vet to find out how much exercise your pet should be getting, but if you have a nervous dog, 45 minutes of aerobic activity can do wonders to calm it down. Likewise, if you have a cat that likes to pounce on people, try to exercise its predatory behavior in a more appropriate way by making it chase a laser light

Pets need a panic room. Regardless of how big or small your home is, if you don’t have a place for your pet to hide when they’re scared, this can cause a problem. “If an apartment is so small that it doesn't allow for a hiding place, instead of being able to retreat, your pet may go into defensive mode,” explains Wells. It can be as simple as a crate or an area you can panel off with a baby gate, she says. “A safe haven for them is really essential.”

Some pet owners think leaving the TV or radio (especially when they're not home) provides their pet with a sense of company. However, Wells says that sometimes, the program can go from something calm to something violent. Instead, she suggests putting on some classical music or purchasing a white-noise machine that will lull them into a very calm state and block out the noise from outside.

If you have a pet with a disorder like anxiety or OCD, usually the animal is predisposed to it, Wells explains. “They don’t develop a disorder based upon a person’s behavior or home situation, but it can make it worse.” There are stereotypical or repetitive behaviors that the animal exhibits which are triggered by stress, like chasing shadows or licking its paw for hours. “It’s usually treated with classical conditioning and exercise, but there is some kind of drug therapy involved as well.”