Shake Rattle and Roll: Coping With Fearful Pets
By Bernadine Cruz, DVM
Blame it on being a veterinarian, but when I hear the phrase ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, I envision quivering cockers and trembling tabbies.
Admittedly there are pets that truly seem to enjoy coming to my office, so I don’t take these panicky pets personally. I would however love it if all of my patients and their caregivers didn’t quake in their bobby socks when they entered my hospital.
It is not just a visit to the veterinarian that can give rise to these seismic displays; groomers, boarding facilities or a trip to a relative’s home for the holidays can also elicit the same reaction. Are these pets cowards? Do they have bad owners? Do they just need a firmer hand? Should the pets just ‘buck up’? These tremulous creatures are demonstrating fear. It can be demonstrated as panting when it is not hot, ears held tight to the head, tail between the legs, avoiding eye contact, excessive lip licking, whining, eliminating on the reception room floor, vomiting or growling.
Why do these pets react so fearfully? Often it is a matter of less than optimal early life socialization. Each pet is unique and responds to their environment differently. Puppies and kittens need gentle exposure to novel situations, especially around 7 to 12 weeks of age. If they were ‘only children’ in a litter, had limited encounters with potentially unnerving situations, or had owners who (with the best of intentions) reinforced fearful behavior, they may never grow into confident adult pets.
What is so bad about being timid and fearful? It can easily become a vicious cycle with each episode only confirming what the pet already suspects…a trip to the groomer will assuredly result in drowning or dismemberment by a pair of scissors. Fear increases stress hormones, weakens the immune system, and can also lead to aggression.
You can empower a pet to welcome original situations, people and other pets, by slow, gentle reinforcement of the behaviors you want. In particular for dogs, don’t lord over them. Bending over them can be intimidating. Get down to their level, don’t grab at them and avoid staring at them. Don’t force them to do anything and, most importantly, have patience with them and yourself. Don’t expect great things, hope for good. Perfection is overrated. You aren’t perfect and neither are the pets.
Reward small incremental positive steps. I have found that if a pet is very nervous during an office call, I will ignore them, sit on the floor and proffer yummy tidbits into their carrier or near them as they cower next to their owner or under the exam room bench. Treats are often bits of marshmallows, a touch of tasty canned food or other savory morsels. If the pet is extremely fearful, I won’t even lay a hand on them. I will just chat with the owner. I’ll have them return as frequently as they can for ‘happy visits’. They come into the office, sit and relax and get offered a treat then leave. The positive response in their demeanor can be dramatic and swift.
There are some situations when compassionate cajoling and positive reinforcement are not going to work. This is not the time for brute force. It will only make matters worse. The best options are a consultation with a veterinarian, possible pharmaceutical assistance and/or an appointment with a board certified veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist.
How to have a well adjusted, confident pet? Tell your clients to start early, show gentle compassion, go slowly and consistently and when in doubt, ask for professional help.