Advice from ACU's pet philosopher

Would you know if your pet dog or cat is suffering anxiety and causing drama in your home? ACU philosophy tutor Dr Simon Coghlan, who also is a working veterinarian, says pet anxiety is a real issue for thousands of Australian pet owners and can cause chaos for families.

Dr Coghlan’s research specializes in the human-animal bond and as a practicing vet deals with scores of troubled cat and dog owners in a nation with one of the highest pet ownerships in the world.

According to Roy Morgan 2015 research, more than 38 per cent of Australians own dogs, and 23 per cent own cats, and pet anxiety has become a pressing issue that is requiring more anti-depressant medication and special training.

“Some dogs and cats have severe anxiety. They are sometimes born that way but some can develop serious problems and can’t be left alone in the house,” he said.

“For dogs, they become overly dependent of always having someone around and if they are left alone they can bark and cause havoc in the home.

“This separation anxiety causes great anxiety for the pet owners, too.

“Cats get anxiety disorders and this can be manifested by them tearing their fur out, and having skin problems. They also start spray urine all over the place, which is not very pleasant and some cats start attacking people.”

Dr Coghlan said prozac has become a common treatment for cats and dogs as well as behavioral therapy that rewarded calm behavior.

He said gone were the days of punishing pets with physical force, and instead the best method to treat bad behavior was using positive reinforcement and rewarding good behavior.

“It’s best to ignore their bad behavior and distract them. For example, if a dog is playing up, you can call them to sit and drop, and distract them from their episode,” he said.

Dr Coghlan completed a PhD in philosophy at ACU on the moral difference between human beings and animals and said humans had been forming special bonds with their pets, especially over the past 50 years.

He said urbanization across the world meant more people had less contact with animals in nature, and when documentary makers like David Attenborough began screening animal-focused television the public’s fascination about the human-animal bond was triggered.

“Pets have become members of the family. They are constantly present and dependent on our care and attention,” he said.

“They share in our activities, such eating and even going on holidays, and are not passive objects, but are interactive and engaging.

“They show affection, curiosity, sadness, fear, and of course anxiety … and many would say they show a form of love. There is a very ancient bond.”

Dr Coghlan said when a pet dies there was high levels of grief in the family home.

“Recently I had two owners on the same day with pets that were too sick and had to be euthanized. This causes major trauma in the home, and there is both stress and grief for all concerned.

“Grief is a real issue for someone who loses there cat or dog because there is a special bond that forms over the years.

“People who don’t have pets may say that some pet owners are pathological, that there is something wrong about their obsession with their cat or dog, and that it is filling in a gap and there’s something missing in their life.

"However, the fact that some people may have unhealthy or problematic relations with their animals need not mean that all relations are defective.

“We are reaching a point in our cultural history in which human-animal relations are being taken more seriously, and such interest in animals is likely to increase in the future.”

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