by Dr. Wailani Sung
Cuddling and petting our pets can be soothing and stress reducing for many people. It is a great way to strengthen the human animal bond. It is normal for social animals to exhibit behaviors that maintain social contact, but can too much petting and attention be harmful? It depends on the individual pet, owner and situation.
In general, giving our pets attention is not harmful and is a great way to bond with our pets. However, keep in mind that some pets do not want a lot of physical attention, just like some people are not huggers or snugglers. Other pets may want to be glued to the owners’ side. For a pet with an underlying anxiety disorder that forms a strong attachment to the owner, they may be in heaven when the owner can give them a lot of individualized attention, but that attention can sometimes backfire.
Affection and Anxiety: What to Look Out For
If a pet has an anxiety disorder, a lot of affection on the owner’s part, especially prior to owners leaving the house, can exacerbate the pet’s distress. Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit anxious behavior during their owners’ absences, such as barking, crying, scratching the door or windows, pacing, drooling excessively or even eliminating in the house.
The intensity of these behaviors can range from mild signs, such as barking for five to ten minutes after the owners leave, to severe signs, such as chewing a hole in the wall of the house to escape, jumping out of windows, pulling out teeth or nails or even breaking their jaw.
Dogs with these disorders have a difficult time understanding why their owners would be holding and petting them one moment, gone the next, then back at home showering them with attention. The sharp contrast with feeling happy and good when the owner is present and then having no one around to comfort them may be too overwhelming for the dog to handle.
Cats exhibit signs of social distress with similar behaviors, such as excessive vocalization, destructive scratching or chewing and inappropriate elimination. Cats typically exhibit these behaviors after prolonged period of the owner’s absence, such was when they are away on vacation.
If a pet exhibits distressed behavior in the owner’s absence, the owner needs to seek help from a veterinary behaviorist, a certified animal behaviorist or veterinarian to help guide them on how to help their pet. In certain cases, anti-anxiety medication may be helpful to reduce the animal’s level of distress in the owners’ absence while the owner is working through a comprehensive treatment plan to address their pet’s issue.
What to Do When Your Pet’s Affectionate Behavior is Unusual
If a pet becomes more affectionate, owners should take note of when and where the behavior occurs. Many pets can learn to exhibit certain behaviors based on our time schedule and habits. For example, if a dog suddenly jumps up on his owner when the owners sit down to work at their desk, the pet may be soliciting attention. If the owner pets the dog instead of working, the dog gets the owner’s undivided attention for that period of time. If the dog likes the attention, it may learn to jump up on the owner every time the owner sits at his desk or whenever the owner sits down.
Some people might find that when it is cold outside that their cat may want to sit in their laps. This ploy may be the cat’s way of getting attention in addition to basking in the owner’s body heat. Pets may also be more interested in sitting right next to their owners or sleeping next to the owners when the temperature in the house is colder. Some pets may just want to be near the owner without actually touching the owner—this may be their way of showing their attachment. How closely your cat sits or lies next to you may be an indication of the intensity of their affection.
Paying close attention to changes in the environment may also explain why a pet can suddenly be more affectionate. Some pets are sensitive to loud noises, such as thunder, fireworks or construction noises. When they hear the loud scary noises, they may want to seek comfort from their owners.
Changes to the family dynamics can also contribute to a pet’s sudden need for the owner’s affection. The recent addition of a baby or pet may present competition to the existing pet’s desire for the owner’s attention. Instead of being the sole recipient of all the scratches and ear rubs, now the pet has to wait its turn to get his daily dose of affection. This may make some pets more anxious or pushy to maintain the owners’ attention.
If you notice an abrupt change in your pet’s behavior, the first thing you should do is schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for an examination to make sure there is no underlying medical condition that can be the cause of behavior change. When some animals experience certain degree of pain or discomfort, they may try to seek attention from their owners. They do not know what to do to take the discomfort or pain away so they become more “needy.” However, not all pets do this when they are uncomfortable, and some pets might not want any affection from their owners at all. Anytime you are uncertain about your pet’s behavior, you should consult with an expert.