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Ask a Vet: Anxiety is a natural response to threats

POSTED: June 8, 2014 1:30 a.m.

I am not a people doctor. Some people might even tell you I am not a people person. So please take this with a grain of salt.

I have the distinct impression the average veterinary patient seen for anxiety as a health problem receives better care than the average human patient seen for the same. Again, this is just an impression, and I do sometimes see the cloud despite the silver lining, but consider the following.

Anxiety is good. It helps you increase your surveillance of the surrounding world so you don’t get killed or eaten. It helps you react to avoid a possible car accident.

Anxiety that offers no benefit is a side effect. Sort of the same way your immune system wants to protect you so you can live. But sometimes it really wants to protect you from pine pollen, and then you’re miserable.

The overreaction can have a strong chemical predisposition, and we see this in pets as well as humans. Certain breeds that tend to have more intellectual jobs are overrepresented on the anxiety scale. They have an overactive brain and worry.

So in veterinary medicine, we recommend behavioral modification. Owners can expose the pet to low levels of the stressors so they become background noise and no big deal (desensitization). Also, we offer rewards for behavior other than the anxious behavior we’re trying to correct (counterconditioning). These are the cornerstones of treatment.

Sometimes medication is needed to help. After all, learning is much easier when your brain isn’t distracted with chemical worries. But the goal is to change the behavior and eventually become medication-free.

In human medicine, it seems medication and behavioral therapy are reversed in this manner. Perhaps this is due to a species difference that obliges chemical intervention. I haven’t studied human neurophysiology, so I don’t know.

But what I described works for dogs and cats. And lions and tigers and bears. Oh my. Perhaps you wonder about it, too. Are we as humans more in need of chemical therapy? Or are we taking the short cut? Just remember what works for pets.

Matthew Sisk is a practicing veterinarian from Habersham County. Have questions about your pet? He can be reached at mattsisk2003@yahoo.com.


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