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The Fearful, Anxious, & Worried Pet

The Fearful, Anxious, & Worried Pet

Theresa DePorter, DVM, DECAWBM, DACVB, Oakland Veterinary Referral Services, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan


|November 2015|Sponsored

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Sponsored by an Unrestricted Educational Grant from Nutramax Laboratories Veterinary Sciences, Inc.

Key Points

  • Anxiety and fear in pets may develop as a result of a complex interaction of environment, conditioning, genetics, and neurological adaptation.
  • Empathy for the pet’s perspective is essential. 
  • Anxiety, stress, or fear may manifest as signs that may be difficult to attribute to a specific trigger.
  • Anxiolytics, including nutraceuticals, are particularly useful for reducing stress when the primary stimulus cannot be completely controlled.

A concerned client recently consulted me about anxiety behaviors in her 3-year-old male neutered Labrador mix. “The world seems too big for Ben,” she explained. The comfort and ease that the dog displayed at home evaporated whenever he walked a few blocks from his yard. Ben would stop and frantically scan his surroundings as if he sensed danger all around. He wasn’t disobedient; he was afraid. He didn’t need training or authority, but rather compassion and understanding.

Empathy for Anxiety

Anxiety and fear result from a complex interaction of environmental conditions, conditioning, genetics, and neurological adaptation. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), influence how an animal responds to stressful situations. Fear or anxiety may be appropriate in some contexts (eg, being afraid of a bear) but detrimental in others (eg, hiding upon hearing the sound of ice cubes in a glass). The occasional startle isn’t unreasonable, but repeated overreactions to harmless situations suggest a failure to habituate to a benign stimulus.

Empathy, a sensitive and compassionate perspective of the pet’s distress, is essential at all stages of diagnosis and treatment. Veterinarians and clients must be sensitive to the pet’s perceptions of its current situation in the context of its collective experiences. Often, the pet’s perspective of a worrisome situation may be underappreciated until the signs have progressed to physical manifestation of that distress.

Dogs living with anxiety may suffer negative effects on health and lifespan that may be compounded if corrective actions are misdirected.2 For example, Ben’s owner may have considered using a prong collar to force Ben to walk if the dog’s behavior was attributed to stubbornness instead of anxiety. Doing so would have been detrimental, giving Ben yet another reason to be afraid of walks. Empathy for Ben’s fear guides family members to make good training decisions and seek supplements to reduce his anxiety.


Fear—a normal adaptive response to the presence of a specific stimulus (eg, an object, noise, or person) perceived as a threat1
  • Phobia—an intense, maladaptive fear of an object or situation that poses no real threat
  • Anxiety—the vague apprehension to an anticipated threat1
  • Empathy
  • —the action of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated
  • Manifestations of Anxiety

    Anxiety may manifest as signs that are difficult to attribute to a specific trigger (see box). Owners who recognize their pet is worried will report anxiety-related behaviors, but others may inaccurately believe their anxious animals are stubborn, jealous, or vindictive. Sometimes owners only report the problematic manifestations, such as nighttime waking, destructive behavior, or excessive vocalization, without recognizing these as clinical signs of anxiety.

    Veterinarians must be proactive and include questions about behavior as a routine part of the history-taking process.

    Different animals may respond in different ways to the same type of stimulus, but the pattern displayed by an individual pet may be very specific and consistent. My own cat, Bacon, is wary of thunderstorms and fireworks. He often hides in the closet when he hears such sounds, but he recently lay down in the middle of the hallway during a mild storm. He rarely rests in that part of the hallway, and I observed he was tense and vigilant (Figure 1). The location he selected was equally far from every window in the home— he was hiding in plain sight.

    Figure 1. Bacon is fearful during thunderstorms and is seen here seeking refuge in a hallway far from all windows. Without empathy, he might be perceived as just a cat resting in the hallway.

    Clinician's Brief

    In another case, Layla is a 10-year-old spayed female Pug that has been afraid of large black dogs for years, reacting with screaming barks and squeals when she sees one. While out for a walk 6 years ago, she was suddenly attacked by such a dog, so her family tries to avoid such encounters. Her owner can best assess Layla’s anxiety, will have the strongest empathy for her distress and, ultimately, can best judge her response to treatment.

    Table 1

    Signs of Fear and Anxiety3,4Physical Manifestations of Anxiety
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Yawning
  • Lip-licking
  • Averted gaze
  • Vocalizing (barking or whining)
  • Avoidance
  • Hiding
  • Increased activity
  • Rigid, motionless posture
  • Drooling
  • Stress-related anorexia
  • Stress-related elimination
  • House soiling
  • Excessive licking or scratching
  • Pawing (attention-seeking)
  • Escape attempts (fleeing crate)
  • Nighttime waking
  • Destruction
  • Diagnosis & Treatment

    Diagnosis is based on owner descriptions and perceptions of the pet’s anxiety in response to identifiable triggers. Notice that none of the signs are unique to a specific diagnosis or even a specific trigger.

    What is the trigger for anxiety? Your client reports their adult housetrained dog is suddenly eliminating inside the home. The dog’s medical history is unremarkable, and physical examination and workup show no abnormalities. You recommend taking the dog outside more and rewarding him for appropriate eliminations. At the next appointment, your client reports the dog has virtually stopped eliminating outside and soils the house regularly. He refuses to eat his favorite treats, is hesitant to leave the house, and now has to be leashed in the backyard. Sometimes his owner must drag him outside. While standing in the yard, the dog is stiff and vigilant, unable to relax sufficiently to eliminate. He then wants to flee back into the home.

    What is the primary cause of the anxiety? The underlying cause cannot be determined from the provided information. The initial trigger could have been fireworks, an encounter with a wild animal in the yard, or recollection of pain from a fall down the stairs into the yard. Any of these triggers could have provoked sufficient anxiety to cause a normal dog to avoid the backyard and thus begin house soiling.

    Empathy & Early Intervention

    Many of the clinical signs of fear and anxiety are destructive and distressing to both pet and owner. Recognition, empathy, and early treatment of anxiety are critical. Veterinarians must be proactive and include questions about behavior as a routine part of the history-taking process because less than half of owners seek veterinary advice when faced with an anxious pet, often turning to friends, the Internet, and breeders instead.4 Unresolved behavior problems, such as house soiling, separation anxiety, and aggression, cause veterinarians to lose approximately 15% of their client base each year due to relinquishment to shelters and euthanasia.5 Undiagnosed and untreated anxiety is likely to worsen until significant clinical signs develop. In cats, chronic anxiety and fear can also lead to secondary behavioral problems, such as overgrooming, scratching, spraying, and inter-cat aggression. The cat may become predisposed to health problems resulting from a compromised immune system.6 At the first sign of an anxiety disorder, the clinician should ascertain the diagnosis and make recommendations for behavior modifications and environmental management.

    Less than half of owners seek their veterinarian's advice when faced with an anxious pet.4

    If warranted, an appropriate anxiolytic, including pharmaceuticals, pheromones, and nutraceuticals, should be initiated. Anxiolytics are particularly useful for reducing stress when the primary stimulus cannot be completely controlled (eg, noises, storms, grooming, walks, or veterinary visits). Nutraceutical supplements provide a comfortable early intervention option (see below). The goal is not sedation but rather the reduction of anxiety to allow natural habituation. This optimizes daily experiences and allows the owner to direct the learning experience. By reducing the pet’s overall fear, anxiety, and distress, anxiolytics “open the door” to allow for successful learning during implementation of a behavior modification program.


    • L-theanine is a structural analogue of the amino acid glutamate, the most important excitatory neurotransmitter of the nervous system. Found naturally in black, green, and white tea, theanine is uniquely palatable and lowers the stimulatory effects of glutamate by increasing the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA in the brain.7 Theanine also directly stimulates the production of alpha brain waves to create a state of relaxed daytime wakefulness and mental alertness that support a once-daily morning dosing regimen.8 Studies in dogs and cats indicate that theanine may ameliorate fear of humans,9 noise phobias, travel anxiety, and urine marking.

    • Magnolia officinalis constituents have long been used in traditional Chinese and Japanese herbal medicine. The plant’s extracts, most specifically honokiol and magnolol, are thought to selectively bind to both synaptic and extrasynaptic GABA receptors to modulate the activity of neurons overstimulated by fear and anxiety.10 This action may explain why these extracts produce benefits similar to diazepam without the sedative effects.

    • Phellodendron amurense, more commonly called the Amur cork tree, yields extracts rich in berberine, which has demonstrated anxiolytic effects similar to those of diazepam and buspirone. The combination of Magnolia plus Phellodendron extracts appears to be synergistic, controlling stress and anxiety more effectively than either compound used alone.11 In one placebo-controlled clinical trial, the two extracts reduced noise-induced anxiety in beagles.12

    • Alpha-lactalbumin is a purified extract from milk whey protein concentrate that is rich in the essential amino acid, L-tryptophan, a precursor of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Chronic stress and anxiety may lead to a depletion of available concentrations of serotonin and tryptophan, causing serotonin to fall below functional needs.13 Alpha-lactalbumin contains the highest tryptophan content (6%) of all food protein sources and has been shown to improve cognitive performance in stress-vulnerable patients.13


    Layla began taking SolliquinTM daily and a week later she came out of her veterinary appointment, glanced at an unexpected black Great Dane sitting in the lobby, and walked by as if that mighty dog wasn’t even there. 

    Because fear and anxiety and their underlying neurologic milieu are so variable from patient to patient, empathy and patience are important while the owner and clinician work to identify the triggers. Pet owners may help the pet for whom the “world seems too big.” Remember Layla? She barks frantically when she encounters a large black dog. Layla began taking SolliquinTM daily and a week later she came out of her veterinary appointment, glanced at an unexpected black Great Dane sitting in the lobby, and walked by as if that mighty dog wasn’t even there. She had the courage to face the fears of everyday life. Only her owners knew what an amazing accomplishment this was for Layla; only her owners truly had empathy for her distress and could celebrate her bravery.

    A broad approach to environmental management and dietary supplementation can be beneficial for behavioral support. Use of nutraceutical anxiolytics may provide a safe and palatable option for pet owners as a first-line intervention.


    • L-theanine
    • Magnolia officinalis
    • Phellodendron amurense
    • Whey protein concentrate (NMXSLQ05TM): a milk protein extract containing alpha-lactalbumin, a high-quality protein source that supplements 10 essential amino acids including cysteine and tryptophan


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