When it comes to pets, fears, anxieties and phobias are more common than most people realize. In people—at least some of them—logic and reasoning can be used to help that person understand that an object, noise or event is not as scary as it may seem. But for pets, their perception is their reality. No amount of discussion or psychotherapy can change their minds about a situation that seems threatening or dangerous to them.
In a national online survey about anxiety in pets, nearly 40 percent of pet owners who responded say they have at least one pet that experiences anxiety.1 Possible contributing factors to anxious behavior may be a lack of proper socialization, some traumatic event, genetic predisposition, and even cognitive decline.
As an animal ages, hearing and sight may be compromised, and with confusion or even discomfort from arthritis, that can result in a more stressed or anxious pet.
Nearly a third of the owners who responded to the online survey say their pets’ fears and anxieties are “extremely or very” problematic, while 44 percent say it is “somewhat” problematic. And 70 percent say the anxiety their pet experiences occurs “fairly often” or “frequently.”
Occasional fear is normal as a response to unknown or threatening people, sounds or events, and to avoid risky situations. But if the anxiety is chronic and worsening, or exaggerated during episodic instances, the pet can be suffering.
Changes in the pet’s life, from a move to a new pet or baby, can contribute to insecurity and anxiety about the animal’s everyday existence. A dog may show excessive attention-seeking behavior, be constantly vigilant and show repetitive behavior (licking), and cats may start urine marking or spraying.
Chronic stress and anxiety can potentially increase the risk of illness, including skin and digestive problems or heart disease, and can lead to behavior problems or aggression.
Episodic anxiety can result in intense reactions to things such as thunderstorms, fireworks, houseguests and traveling.
Sometimes owners hesitate to bring the issue to their veterinarian’s attention, but ignoring the problem seldom helps it go away.
Veterinarians should rule out any physical problems and take a complete and detailed history (medical, nutritional and behavioral) to help define the issue better. While the possibility of preventing anxious behavior is debatable, early detection of tell-tale signs can stimulate measures to try to keep it from getting worse.
Veterinarians and veterinary staff can discuss appropriate early socialization, teach pet owners to avoid punishment and use positive reinforcement, and try to avoid stressful stimuli, if reasonable. Proper behavior modification can go a long way to helping a pet cope with exposure to fearful situations, and the veterinary team can be a great resource in providing guidance.
Methods such as counter-conditioning and desensitization can be very effective in certain cases. Some pets, however, may benefit from the addition of medications or supplements, particularly during the period of behavior modification, to reduce the perceived level of anxiety and allow the training to be more effective.
While certain prescription medications can help (SSRIs, tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazapines), some owners are reluctant to go straight to the pharmaceutical solution as a first line of treatment. Concerns about sedative effects and having a change in their family interaction lead some pet owners to look for alternatives.
In fact, a combined 51 percent of pet owners in the previously mentioned survey “try to avoid pharmaceuticals for my pet” and “prefer natural products.” Only 31 percent say they have no issues with pharmaceuticals.
A Supplemental Option
The amino acid L-theanine is found naturally in green tea and is known for its calming properties. At therapeutic levels, L-theanine is shown to increase concentrations of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and increase brain serotonin and dopamine levels.4 Suntheanine is a patented, pure active form of L-theanine, free of D-theanine, which can exhibit a competitive effect with respect to intestinal absorption.
In humans, L-theanine has been shown to generate alpha brain waves, indicative of relaxed, effortless alertness, or in other words, calming effects without drowsiness.
Anxitane (L-Theanine) Chewable Tablets, available through Virbac Animal Health, contain Suntheanine in a chewable form proven to reduce clinical signs related to fear and anxiety.
In an open-field trial designed and performed by veterinary behaviorists Drs. Valerie Dramard and Laurent Kern,5 two of three dogs showed significant improvement when treated with Anxitane Tablets. In clinical signs associated with fear, such as trembling, mydriasis, hypervigilance, inhibition, flight and avoidance, there was a significant reduction (P < 0.0001), with similar data in cats resulting in owner satisfaction.5
While some pets may show a rapid response, for chronic conditions, progressive improvement in behavior is expected over three to six weeks. For the best evaluation in a pet, regular administration for a period of two months may be needed to assess its full potential, and it can be used long-term.
For episodic stressful situations such as car rides, fireworks or visitors, doses should be administered 12 hours and two hours before the event. For a prolonged situation, the administration can be repeated every six hours.
While thunderstorms may be considered episodic events, they are often difficult to predict, so regular administration during thunderstorm season with supplementation during the storm could be the best regimen for the pet, paired with behavior modification.
In summary, while anxiety and stress may be common in pets and each one’s experience is individualized, veterinarians can play an important role in helping the owner recognize the early signs, and to be proactive in recommending behavior modification and potential supplements or medication to help decrease the impact these behavior problems can have on pets.
For more information on CE-eligible training, please see the “Understanding Fear and Anxiety in Dogs and Cats” module by Dr. Valarie Tynes, Dipl. ACVB, in Virbac University.
1. ANXITANE® Tablets Pet Owner Survey. 2009.
2. Patronek BJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM, et al. Risk factors for relinquishment of dogs to an animal shelter. JAVMA 1996; 209(3): 572-581.
3.Patronek BJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM, et al. Risk factors for relinquishment of cats to an animal shelter. JAVMA 1996; 209(3): 582-588.
4.Nathan PJ, Lu K, Gray M, Oliver C. The neuropharmacology of L-theanine: A possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent. J Herbal Pharm 2006. 6(2): 21-32.
5.Data on file. Virbac Animal Health
Dr. Heidi Lobprise, Dipl. AVDC, is senior technical manager for Virbac Corp.