Dogs entering the shelter come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. As a result, many of these dogs display signs of fear and anxiety that can be heightened in an unfamiliar shelter environment. Some dogs are so stressed that they display signs of fear aggression.
The causes are varied and while some may suffer from underlying generalized anxiety, others may have been abused or neglected in the past.
Every day at Miami- Dade County Animal Services, our veterinary team is charged with the treatment and care of hundreds of sick and injured dogs and cats that have been abandoned at the shelter. We treat for variety of physical health problems including injuries suffered by strays who have been hit by car, abuse, severe anemia and infectious diseases — just to name a few. While we recognize the importance of providing these animals with the appropriate treatment for their physical injuries and illnesses, we also work to ensure that animals that display behavioral health problems receive needed care.
As part of medical rounds at the shelter, our veterinarians identify dogs that exhibit signs of fear and anxiety by analyzing the animal’s body language. We make every effort to identify any subtle signs of stress the animal may show since early detection and intervention can help prevent dogs from developing more severe clinical behaviors. The successful treatment of fear and anxiety in animals involves a multimodal approach for behavioral wellness.
In coordination with the shelter’s volunteer department, we’ve developed a comprehensive canine and feline enrichment program. Enrichment simply means enriching the day-to-day lives of these pets by providing them with opportunities and activities that involve human contact. For dogs, enrichment simply entails taking them for walks, games of tug or fetch, offering toys or chews, or just spending quality time with them. These enrichment activities — which are what enriches the lives of most companion pets and their humans — are important interventions that help maintain a pet’s behavioral health. Enrichment is the most important approach for preserving or improving the behavioral health of a shelter animal as it greatly helps make them a desirable pet companion.
Unfortunately, enrichment alone is not sufficient for some dogs, especially those exhibiting high incidences of fear and anxiety. In some cases, we need to treat dogs that display intense fear and anxiety with medication.
One particular example is that of Amber, one of my canine patients, abandoned in the streets and left to fend for her own as a stray. When we rescued Amber and brought her into the shelter she was, naturally, fearful. The following day during medical rounds, I noticed that her anxiety and fear had increased — she trembled and recoiled towards the back of her kennel.
We decided to start her on Trazadone, an anti-anxiety medication being used at shelters across the country for treatment of fear and anxiety. One of the benefits of Trazadone is that we can safely discontinue its use when the dog leaves the shelter. As soon as the dogs are in a loving home, their anxiety and fear subsides.
After only three days on the anti-anxiety medication, Amber showed marked improvement. She stopped trembling and began wagging her tail when I approached her kennel. She even moved her head forward so that I could to pet her. A few days later, I’m glad to report, Amber was adopted and went home with her new family.
It’s important to stress that medication for fearful and anxious dogs is just one aspect of the shelter’s behavioral wellness plan. The success of our behavioral wellness plan is largely dependent on volunteers. We are always in need of caring volunteers who can offer a shelter dog or cat the attention, love and socialization they so desperately crave and need. Volunteering for just a few hours a week to socialize with our dogs and cats can prevent and treat behavioral problems in shelter pets and make them as adoptable as they are lovable.
For more information about volunteering visit www.miamidade./animals.