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Pet Therapy

Caring for the emotional well-being of your pet.

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Caring for the emotional well-being of your pet

We all want our pets to stay with us as long as possible, and we all want to give them the best possible quality of life. Yet when we think of our pets’ wellness, most of us think primarily of their physical health. There’s another, equally important, aspect of overall wellness to consider: emotional well-being.

Just like us, animals experience deep and often complex emotions. Sadly, those emotions are often misunderstood, dismissed, or overlooked altogether. Happily, more and more animal caregivers—owners as well as veterinarians and behaviorists—are examining pets’ emotions and taking them very seriously. The result is a new breed of animal companion that has the best chance at maximum longevity and premium quality of life.

Did you know…
Just like us, animals experience deep and often complex emotions.

Consider Your Pets’ Feelings

Dan Sullivan, DVM, of Grand Gorge Animal Hospital, is a pragmatic veterinarian with a thriving practice in rural New York that offers care to animals both large (horses, cows) and small (dogs, cats). Like many excellent vets, Sullivan always considers his animal patients’ emotional well-being—mainly because so many of them present with symptoms of emotional unrest. “Most behavioral problems in dogs and cats are related to either OCD or anxiety,” Sullivan explains. “OCD is the easiest to recognize: cats that overgroom themselves, or other cats, to the point that they produce excessive hairballs; dogs that lick obsessively at a part of their anatomy until they wind up with wounds, such as sores or lick granulomas.” Sullivan says OCD and anxiety-related behaviors may also manifest as a pet becoming obsessed with something, such as a wall, a chew toy, or their food. For example, some cats will overeat ravenously out of anxiety, only to vomit immediately afterward.

The most common form of anxiety in pets is separation anxiety, caused by being apart from owners or other pets, says Sullivan. “You see two animals that were raised together, then you move one or the other, and you get one—and possibly two—anxious pets.”

Our well-intentioned desire to overdomesticate animals comes into play, too, Sullivan adds. “Cats, for instance, were put on Earth to run and hunt. And what do we do? Lock them up in the house and give them all the grain-based food they can eat!” This contributes to cats becoming overweight and lazy, with no outlet for their instinctive drives, continues Sullivan. “Also, cats are primarily solitary creatures. So we bunch them up into groups and make them share a litter pan, when they’re not wired that way. Going against cats’ natural instincts will result in all kinds of emotional issues; these are displayed in excessive licking, aggression, inappropriate urination to mark territory.”

Then there’s another kind of urination: that of senior pets that become incontinent. Fastidious females, especially, may feel disgusted with themselves, outraged at this brutal indignity of advanced age. Understand this, and don’t become frustrated with your older pet for causing extra cleanup.

Be the Pack Leader

Certain behavioral issues with canines arise from our tendency to forget that dogs are pack animals that look to us, their humans, for leadership. “There are very few ‘naturally aggressive’ dogs,” Sullivan contends. “Most behave aggressively out of fear, or feelings of insecurity, because their owners are not in charge, and not performing their role as pack leader. And some dogs learn that displaying a bit of aggression gets them their way.”

People often neglect to train dogs altogether— or they misuse training tools that were designed to support dogs’ emotional wellness. Crates are one example, small cage-like structures that are meant to be used as a refuge for dogs in the home, not a punishment. “Crates are wonderful when used correctly,” Sullivan explains. “The crate is supposed to be a den, a safe zone, for the dog, a place where nothing bad happens. Don’t ever punish or yell at a dog while she is in a crate. Remember, it’s your responsibility to provide for your animals’ mental and emotional health.” Sullivan gives his own dog, Sky, commands using his most authoritative voice, but doesn’t yell. “And I never, ever hit Sky,” he says. “I use my voice. That’s all you have to do.”

Provide a Sense of Continuity

Dogs rescued from abandonment, neglect, or abuse positively blossom when their emotional needs are met. William Berloni, author of Broadway Tails, is the go-to animal trainer for Broadway’s Midtown-Manhattan theater district, and is recognized for his achievements by the prestigious Tony Awards. All of his performing pets, including 32 dogs and three cats, are rescues from animal shelters. “On a day-to-day basis, we are constantly checking that our animals are in a good place emotionally as well as physically,” Berloni says. “You can train an animal to do specific behaviors, but if he or she is stressed and not in a good place, they’re just not going to do it for you. Traveling with us, our team of working dogs is always on the move, in new environments, so we set up as many consistencies as possible: their own crates and beds on the road, bedtime and walks at the same time, feeding the same familiar food. That way, there’s always a sense of home, and we’ve minimized stress, the major cause of emotional discomfort.”

The relatively recent trend of people acquiring animals for “emotional support” has a downside for the pets assigned to this line of duty: many are absorbing their owners’ high stress levels, and this is taking a toll on the animals’ well-being. “Remember, your dog feels everything you feel,” says Berloni. “For their emotional well-being, try not to show extreme, negative emotions around pets. As pet parents, we all must learn to manage our response to stressful situations in positive ways.”

Is There a Pill for That?

Many pet owners seek a quick fix, a “puppy Prozac” to cope with stress. Humans should never share psychopharmaceuticals meant for people with their pets. But there are many effective over-the-counter herbal and homeopathic remedies that help pets to handle stress. Use supplements specifically formulated for pets. For example, for dogs that suffer during thunderstorms or when boarding at a kennel, valerian helps them to decompress and sleep soundly, just as it does in humans; cloak the capsules in peanut butter or some other tasty treat, as dogs hate the smell and will spit out valerian if it’s not disguised. Bananas are great for mood support for both people and pets. Give bananas in small chunks, and only as an occasional treat. And remember that it’s important to manage your own stress. Says Berloni, “The less stress you experience, the happier your dog will be, so everybody wins.”

Bananas are great for mood support for both people and pets. Give bananas to dogs in small chunks, and only as an occasional treat.