We love our pets. In many cases, we consider them as nothing less than cherished members of our families, and we want to do everything we can to give them the best care and love possible.
But in addition to being adorable bundles of joy, pets are also a ton of responsibility. From raising and training your pet to finding ways to take care of their unique health needs, there are a lot of reasons that pet owners might stress. Some people may even worry about their pets so much that it reaches a level of so-called “pet anxiety,” a type of persistent stress and fear over the wellbeing of the furry members of our family.
If you find yourself constantly worrying over your pet, you’re not alone. So what exactly is pet anxiety, and when is it something that you should be concerned about? In this article, we’ll talk about the various reasons that you might find yourself stressing over your pets, plus where you can turn for help if that fear becomes something more persistent that disrupts your life.
Reasons you might be stressed about your pet
Taking care of a pet requires a ton of time, care, and investment. As a result, there are many reasons that you might find yourself stressing about your pet’s well-being. What’s more, because pets are individual beings who often can’t advocate for themselves, there’s also an added element of uncertainty and the potential for issues to arise that are completely out of your control.
Some potential reasons you might find yourself worrying about your pet include things like:
- Health uncertainty. One major reason that you might find yourself stressed about your pets is wondering whether they are healthy, even if you stay consistent with vet visits and vaccinations. After all, unlike your human family members, pets can’t always tell you what’s going on and whether they’re feeling okay, so you might find yourself worrying whether you’re missing something serious, or picking up on slight differences in their behavior and wondering if they’re signs of a major problem. When pets do become sick, you may have a strong sense of guilt, worrying that you could have done something to avoid their suffering.
- Finances in general. Raising a pet can be costly. From food and toys to supplies and vet visits, it can take a toll on your wallet over the year. Vet emergencies are also a possibility, which can quickly rack up especially if you don’t have pet insurance. A recent survey conducted by USA Today found that a whopping 91% of dog owners reported experiencing some level of financial stress over their furry best friend.
- Possibility of pets going missing. In addition to these common concerns that you might feel for any being that you’re responsible for, there are also possibilities of situations that are completely out of your control. For example, you might get anxious about the possibilities of your pets escaping or being stolen, which can be incredibly scary because, again, your pets can’t communicate in the same way that humans do.
- Training. Training your pets is necessary, both for keeping them and the rest of your family safe. Training is also important for living harmoniously alongside a whole other species. However, training can be difficult and requires patience, consistency, and finding a way to “speak the same language.” You might even feel guilt if training doesn’t go as smoothly as you think it should.
- Introducing pets and children. If you have other little ones in your family, you might worry about how it will go introducing them to your new pets. On the other hand, if you’re bringing a new human child into your home, you might worry about their safety and whether your pet can handle the huge transition. Introducing a new pet to other pets can be similarly stressful.
- The logistical and financial burden of finding a pet sitter. Having pets also presents challenges when it comes to traveling or working, and you may need to hire a pet sitter to give them care for times when you’re unable to be there yourself. Finding a pet sitter or daycare center can be expensive, and there is also a level of uncertainty when you’re trying to find a pet sitter that you know you can trust with your furry loved one.
- Shorter lifespans. Finally, it’s well worth mentioning that many people feel a certain fear and anxiety due to their pet’s naturally shorter lifespan. It can be hard to come to terms with the idea that your pet will not live as long as you do and that one day you’ll have to say goodbye to them. This can become especially difficult as you approach the difficult and devastating decision to euthanize a pet.
When “pet anxiety” becomes something to worry about
No matter how likely or unlikely the possibilities that worry you are, it’s no wonder that so many people feel a certain fear or even guilt over how well they’re taking care of their pets. But when might this level of anxiety become something that requires attention for your own mental health?
First, it’s important to note that worrying about your pet and being stressed over their well-being is often very valid.
“I think it’s important to note that some degree of anxiety or worry over your pet’s wellbeing is probably expected and reasonable,” says Dr. Nicholas Farrell, licensed clinical psychologist and Regional Clinical Director at NOCD. Many of the things that we stress the most about our pets, like getting them regular vet visits and immunizations, are an important part of responsible pet ownership, and it’s only natural that we would worry about these things if we want to give them the best care possible.
He continues, “But it can of course reach a point where the intensity of the anxiety becomes such that a person is having difficulty functioning, concentrating, or focusing on the things they want to be focusing on.” He explains, “Maybe somebody is at work trying to accomplish a task or meet a deadline, and yet they’re hindered from doing so because of their near-constant anxiety and worry over the wellbeing of their pet at home.” Similarly, people may lose sleep, waking up throughout the night to make sure their pet is okay and hasn’t hurt themselves.
In cases like this, when the fear and anxiety have become so all-consuming that they interfere with one’s ability to live their life the way they want to, it might be a good time to seek help. Persistent fear and worry about your pet, even if there is nothing currently going on with their health or well-being, may indicate that you’re experiencing clinical levels of anxiety and may even indicate some form of anxiety disorder. If this is something that you think you may be dealing with, seeking help can go a huge way in improving your own mental well-being and quality of life.
A huge part of treatment for various kinds of anxiety includes working with a mental health professional to learn to accept that there is never 100% certainty or perfect safety—about your pet or anything else. In the context of pet anxiety, this often means learning to accept that there’s never a guarantee over a pet’s well-being, and developing a tolerance for this uncomfortable truth.
Dr. Farrell explains that in cases of clinical anxiety related to pet care, effective treatment might look like “learning through therapy, specifically through exposure and response prevention therapy, that uncertainty and doubt over the wellbeing of the pet, while certainly uncomfortable, can, in fact, be tolerated and managed better than a person might anticipate.”
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, an evidence-based form of therapy in which a licensed mental health professional helps people with anxiety disorders face their fears and learn to sit with their discomfort, rather than suppressing their fears or reacting with unhelpful responses.
“Through exposure, what we’re often able to help folks learn is that, while it’s unpleasant, one is in fact better than they think at tolerating uncertainty about the well-being of their pet,” says Dr. Farrell.
Intrusive thoughts about pets
Anxiety disorders aren’t the only reason that you might find it hard to move on from the stress of owning and caring for a pet. If your worries about your pet are frequent, intrusive, and disturbing, and if they are accompanied by repetitive behaviors or mental actions that you carry out in order to alleviate your fear or keep your pet from harm, it’s worth considering whether you may be experiencing a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is a mental health condition that is defined by obsessions, which are disturbing and repetitive intrusive thoughts, feelings, urges, sensations, or images, and compulsions, which are mental and/or physical actions that you do in response to those obsessions. Compulsions—such as repeatedly checking your pet’s breathing overnight—are intended to relieve you of the distress that those intrusive triggers can bring or to prevent something you fear might happen, such as your pet ingesting something toxic.
The fears and anxieties that people with OCD experience can cover a broad range of subjects, including stress about their pets. In fact, one of the more common themes that Dr. Farrell has seen in OCD patients is intrusive and unwanted thoughts or images about them doing harm to their own pets. As a result, they feel a need to avoid being around their pets for fear that they could hurt them.
But why would you have such disturbing thoughts about your pets in the first place, when you know that you love and care for them so much?
The thing about OCD that few people realize is that it tends to latch on to the things you love and care about most in life. While having those unwanted fears can be extremely disturbing, especially when you love your pet so much, it’s important to understand that those thoughts don’t mean that you actually want to carry out those violent acts. It’s also important to know that, even though you might feel shame and worry about having such distressing intrusive thoughts, you aren’t alone, and help is out there.
How to cope with intrusive fears about your pet
Even though having anxiety or OCD focused on the pets you love so much can be extremely distressing, there is help out there. In addition to being a highly effective treatment for many different anxiety disorders, ERP therapy is also considered the gold standard for OCD treatment.
As we previously mentioned, ERP therapy involves gradually exposing people to their triggers and fears, and working with a mental health professional to sit with that distress and uncertainty, rather than reacting with compulsive behaviors.
In the case of ERP treatment for pet-related anxiety or OCD, Dr. Farrell explains that “imaginal exposure” is a good tool. As the name suggests, the client would be faced with their fears by being encouraged to imagine, as vividly as possible, their worst fear coming true (in this case, it might be their pet experiencing serious illness or death). Their therapist would then work with them to resist the urge to engage in compulsions to feel better, and instead learn to accept that fear and anxiety, without engaging in compulsions that only feed their fears more—such as checking their pet’s breathing or researching online for reassurance about their pet’s health.
Unsurprisingly, this imaginal exposure can be a highly uncomfortable and distressing experience, but the goal would be to learn to sit with that anxiety and pain, rather than resorting to compulsive behaviors that can reinforce their fear.
Additionally, in cases of OCD where someone is worried about harming their pet, whether accidentally or on purpose, ERP might also involve exposing the patient to actual interactions with their pet. They might be encouraged to get down on the floor and play with the pet while making no effort to block or suppress unwanted thoughts of harming them.
“In many situations, the client would actually be encouraged to invite those unwanted thoughts,” adds Dr. Farrell. “It might sound cruel, but it gives that person an opportunity to learn through experience. Having my pet on my lap while I’m having these unpleasant thoughts or images doesn’t in fact mean I’ll do something impulsively.”
Find help for anxiety about your pet
Going through ERP with a trained therapist can ultimately help you learn to cope with your fears, rather than letting them run your life. If you are interested in learning how ERP can help you with anxiety and/or OCD, please take a minute to learn more about NOCD’s specialized, holistic approach to treating OCD and anxiety.
Finally, Dr. Farrell stresses that, if you are experiencing extreme fear and anxiety around the well-being of your pet, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Pets are often some of the most important beings in our lives and valued members of our families, which means that their well-being should be a priority. “Animals hold different sentimental value for people, and one shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed if they believe they’re experiencing OCD or clinically elevated anxiety around a pet,” he says. “One can give themselves permission to have this problem and hopefully get help for it.”