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Can our pets sense our anxiety?

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I’ve been social distancing since March 13th, so it’s safe to say that I am a little higher strung than usual. My cats and dogs are the only other mammals I’ve touched in two weeks. They seem to like all the attention when I want to snuggle, but they look a bit wary of the times I’m, say, compulsively cleaning the house or crying on the kitchen floor. Can my fur family sense my anxiety — and is it affecting them? While they seem okay so far, a few of my friends have been expressing worry over their dogs being anxious or even unwell. I asked vets to explain how our anxiety affects our pets.

“I think most companion animal owners have a sense that their pets are aware of negative emotional states and that they react to those states,” says Nancy R. Gee, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University and a fellow at Wallis Annenberg PetSpace Leadership Institute, an animal wellness foundation. “But understanding precisely what emotional states pets can sense in their humans is a challenging topic to study because pets don’t speak our languages.” Instead, Gee explains, we have to look at our pets’ behavior to see how they’re feeling.

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“Dog owners often report that when their own tempers flare, for example raising their voice in a disagreement, their dogs change their behaviors,” Gee says. “They may jump up on their humans, or bark, or leave the room.” So, yes, our pets do respond to our emotional states, but Gee cautions that folks who are more attached to their animals are more likely to interpret their pet’s behaviors as emotional, when we can’t, in fact, accurately interpret animal emotions.

It makes total sense though, that our cat or dog would be synched with their humans, at least at some capacity. “Why wouldn't we suspect that pets sense our anxieties?” she asks. “They are much better at noticing little behavioral changes in us than we are at noticing small behavioral nuances in them.” But just because they sense our anxiety doesn’t mean that they are inordinately affected by it. Animals are individuals, Gee reminds me, although “some pets are more resilient than others,” she says.

It’s our responsibility as pet parents to look out for the emotional health of our pets. “Dogs are emotional beings and we are responsible for shaping the mental environment that they live in,” says Shelly Zacharias, a veterinarian and VP of Medical Affairs, a stem cell bank for dogs. “Whether the vibe we put off is positive or melancholy, it affects everyone around us, including our dogs and in turn their emotional state.” I’d say that’s an extra impetus for us to tend to our emotional health so that your fur baby feel secure too. “We need to use mechanisms to help relieve our own stress — breathing, meditation, exercise, etc. — before we can help our pets,” she says.

“Whether the vibe we put off is positive or melancholy, it affects everyone around us, including our dogs and in turn their emotional state.”

But, besides getting our own self care routine on lockdown, there are specific ways we can help our pets cope with the changes that they might be experiencing as a result of the COVID pandemic. Gee suggests establishing a new routine so that pets can have a predictable experience each day. We should also try to keep their diets consistent, which means not giving out a bunch of extra treats just because you’re home all day now (they can cause indigestion).

Also, since many of us are spending more time with our pets than usual, Gee says that of course we should do things with them, but we should also monitor their energy level and respond accordingly. In other words, don’t walk your dog six times a day because you’re bored. Unless they’re stoked about it. Then go right ahead.

Gee says that all this home time is a good opportunity to get to know your fur babies, give them some extra attention, and maybe spend some time training them. If you are really concerned about your pet’s emotional wellbeing, Gee says, “spend some time learning about their body language, so you can better understand what they may be saying to you.”

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