by Tori Hamby
With so many behavioral treatments for pets – from dog whisperers to medication and expensive training programs – exasperated owners might have difficulty sifting through their options.
Like humans, pets can suffer from a variety of mental disorders that cause behavioral problems, veterinarians say. These disorders – including obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders, and even Alzheimer’s disease – can show themselves in a pet’s predilection to tear up the house when left alone, tendency to urinate when panicked, aggression or other destructive behaviors.
“Pretty much anything you see in human behavior, we have on the animal side as well,” said Mike Heinen, owner of Lake Norman Animal Hospital in Mooresville.
Alycen Adams, a veterinarian at Carolinas Veterinary Care Clinic in Huntersville, said symptoms of OCD in pets include walking in circles to the point where paws become bloody and, in cats, excessive grooming. OCD is also common in birds, which pick at their feathers as a result.
Dogs that have traditionally been bred to perform jobs – such as Golden Shepherds and Border Collies – often have an overabundance of energy, which can manifest itself as anxiety, Adams said. When left home alone that anxiety can trigger destructive behavior.
“It’s like a high energy person with nothing to do,” Adams said. “They are going to cause mischief.”
Separation anxiety is also especially pronounced in dogs, Adams said, who have poor concepts of time. The sound of an owner’s key jingling at the door, for instance, can trick a dog into thinking their owners will be gone forever.
The most effective behavior modification regimens, he said, combine medication and behavioral therapy. Pets can use medication to improve their coping skills, increasing the chances that non-medical treatment – such as reinforcing positive behavior through treats or attention – will stick.
“We can use medicine to break the pattern and help the animal realize ‘hey, I can cope with this; it isn’t so bad,’” Heinen said. “Then we get them over that small phobia.”
“A cat who has had a urinary tract infection can develop a fear of its litter box because of the pain it associates with it,” Adams said. “(Medicine) can ease that aversion.”
There are also drug treatments available for short-term anxiety-induced behaviors caused by thunderstorms or loud noises. Alprazolam and diazepam, known to humans as Xanax and Valium, can be administered temporarily.
Owners can give their pets a dose of these drugs about 24 hours before a thunderstorm is predicted to hit or Fourth of July fireworks go off in the pet’s surrounding neighborhood.
“These pet aren’t lying in the corner drooling like a vegetable when they are on these medications,” Adams said.
Just as a number of natural treatments are available to humans for stress, anxiety or depression, pets may also benefit from these remedies. The scent of lavender, a flower known for its calming affects on humans, can sooth an anxious pet, Heinen said.
Facial pheromones are available for cats in sprays or plug-in diffuser devices. These chemicals are synthetic versions of naturally occurring familiarization pheromones used to mark objects in its surroundings as familiar.
“They make animals feel like they have their own little baby blankets,” Heinen said.
To prepare dogs for thunderstorms, owners can play sounds of thunder, wind and rain at low volumes to acclimate pets to startling noises, Adams said. Owners can gradually turn the volume up until the dog no longer becomes anxious during storms.
Owners can also buy a Thundershirt online at www.thundershirt.com. The gentle pressure of the snug fitting doggie jacket provides dogs with a sense of security.
“We have some owners who swear by it, and others who say it doesn’t really make a difference,” Adams said. “A dogs reaction to things like the Thundershirt and pheromones really depends on the sensitivity of the dog and the severity of the problem.”
While pet variations of some behavioral medicines, such as Prozac, Xanax or Valium are identical to the medications a human night take, Heinen said owners should never give their pets medicine prescribed to humans. Dosage amounts and idiosyncratic properties of different drugs could have adverse affects on pets.
“A pinch of Tylenol will kill a cat,” Heinen said. “You need the right drug and the right diagnosis.”