Animal Behavior – Beyond the Fourth of July
Every year, when the Fourth of July arrives, our local animal community unites to send out a common message: keep your pets safe!
This important advice often includes keeping your pet securely inside, updating your pet’s microc
hip and tags, playing noise from the television or radio, using a Thundershirt, and asking your veterinarian to prescribe a sedative.
But are we missing a bigger picture? Are there other resources we could be using to treat the root of the problem year-round, instead of just the symptoms when the holiday arrives?
The answer is yes. And the first step is to find a good trainer or animal behaviorist. Doing this can be challenging, as there is no regulation on the field of behavior and no one thinks of themselves as a “bad” trainer. You can find some good guidelines to help you here find a reputable trainer here.
The first thing a good trainer will do is help you learn to communicate with your animal more accurately and better read their body language. It is much easier to turn an animal’s anxiety around if you catch it early (like when they are start to get tense around or are yawning) instead of when they are already a basket case.
You can also learn how to use desensitization and counter-conditioning to loud noises and other scary triggers, which will help your pet be more confident and adaptable in everyday life, not just for the holiday.
And finally, if your pet has a very high level of anxiety, you should talk to a veterinary behaviorist about medications. Although sedatives are often seen as an acceptable tool for one-time events, there is general distrust in the idea of medicating your pet with anti-anxiety medications. Sometimes your veterinarian will feel comfortable prescribing these medications, but because behavior is a specialty field, they might not have the most current knowledge or experience to manage the medication most effectively.
The two main misconceptions about anti-anxiety medications for animals is that they will be highly sedating and that they will have to be taken forever. The fact of the matter is, no training you do with your companion animal will be effective if they are above their stress threshold — it would be like you trying to learn a new skill during a panic attack. Behavioral medications can be sedating and need to be used long-term, but in many cases, the main personality change is a decrease in anxiety, and the medication is taken for a number of months to keep the pet’s anxiety low enough for other behavioral work to be effective. Any changes in your pet’s prescription should be managed by a veterinarian, as you will likely need to taper the dose slowly.
Now it is your time to share. How did your pets do on the Fourth of July? What tools did you use to help them and what will you do to prepare for next year?