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By Dr. Michael Fox, Published November 09 2012

Pet Care: Stressed dog can’t relax

Dear Dr. Fox: I have been fostering a 7-year-old female Westie for the past five months. The rescue center told me that a Missouri breeder dropped her off, saying that the dog had no problems, was in good health and had been kept in a pen her whole life. It took her a little bit to come around to me, but she now comes when I call to her and can obey simple commands.

I would like to socialize her, but she seems to be very sensitive to sounds that naturally occur in a home, and she is extremely frightened of the outdoors and other people. If the dog and I are outside in the backyard and she hears a neighbor talking or a car drive by, she panics, pants, shakes and begs to go back inside. She doesn’t know how to play or chew on toys, and she seems to want only to hide in a corner and sleep all day. She doesn’t bark, bite or act aggressive – just scared all the time. I speak softly to her, pet her and show her as much love as I can, and she trusts me now, but she can’t seem to accept the simplest of noises, like a door closing or the neighbor’s lawn mower.

Can you think of anything I can do to help her relax around normal noises and people? Is there a book you can recommend? – L.M., St. Louis

Dear L.M.: You have my sympathy, and I share with you the frustration and sense of failure you have gone through with this poor dog. It is likely your dog is suffering from the consequences of prolonged environmental deprivation (PED), a syndrome that researchers studied in dogs decades ago. Depending on breed, temperament, duration of confinement and the quality of rehabilitation treatment, recovery is possible, though there are no guarantees. This syndrome is similar in some ways to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Under veterinary and behavioral therapist guidance, using a combination of Valium or Xanax with gradual desensitization behavior modification, your little terrier may recover and enjoy a better quality of life with freedom from fear. Spending several hours a day with an easygoing, friendly dog could be the best medicine. You might also try fitting her with an anxiety wrap – such as the kind sold to help dogs suffering from fear of thunder – when you go out.

Your letter is a red flag for purebred dog adoption networks and prospective long-distance adopters. These organizations have a responsibility to the dogs to ensure they are suitable for adoption in terms of temperament and compatibility and that dogs with PED and other behavioral problems are given appropriate treatment – like good foster homes – prior to being put up for adoption.

Dear Dr. Fox: We have a 2½-year-old cat, Tuxedo, who we adopted last year. He prefers being outdoors and on the screened porch, with the screen door ajar. His personality is loving to us and fearful of other people and noises.

He has not learned to use our porch pet door (lightweight plastic). We carry him to the door and coax him with food and treats to open it when he is most hungry and try when he is outside by opening the flap and enticing him with favorite food. He simply will not walk through or allow us to gently lift him through the open flap.

Please help. We need to have the screen door closed. Our vet couldn’t offer any new suggestions. – W.K., Front Royal, Va.

Dear W.K.: I am very much opposed to letting cats go free outdoors unless they enter a bird-proof and escape-proof enclosure.

Please make every effort to help your cat enjoy life outdoors in an enclosure rather than allowing him to roam free. Many cat owners build outdoor enclosures for their cats to enjoy. Alternatively, you can make the screened porch more cat friendly by including a cat condo, scratch-post or secure tree branch placed for him so he can climb and look out. Consider adopting an easygoing, healthy young cat to enrich his social life indoors. Cats can be trained to wear a harness and enjoy strolling outdoors on a leash.

Pet doors should be left open initially so the animal gets used to passing through the opening. Then tape it up so it is half-closed and just needs a little push up.

Send your questions to Dr. Fox in care of The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns. Visit Dr. Fox’s Web site at www.twobitdog.com/DrFox.