Catastrophizing Companion Animal Behavior

Are you guilty of catastrophizing companion animal behavior? You might be thinking, “I might be—if I knew what catastrophizing was.” I felt the same way when I heard the word the first time. It’s what we used to call an exaggerated, histrionic, or over-the-top response to something perceived as negative. However in the academic world of human behavior and medicine, catastrophizing is the current in-word used to describe people who believe that things are far worse than they are. The behavior gained attention when it emerged as a primary factor in chronic pain perception. People who catastrophize their pain fear they couldn’t handle with it without  drugs. And that belief ranks as the primary driver of opioid addiction.

This got me thinking about if and how catastrophizing plays out in human-companion animal relationships. The short answer is that, at least in my experience, it can and does occur. And it may affect people, their animals, or both. It also might be more common than it used to be. As always though, context takes center stage when we talk about any kind of behavior.

We live in a society that rewards drama. The squeaky wheel may not get any grease or any other needed repairs. But it usually will get more reactions, better ratings, or other attention from others than a quiet one. But whether this works depends on what the squeaky wheel—or person or companion animal—wants.

Applying a basic cost/benefit analysis enables us to determine whether catastrophizing represents a viable approach for a specific individual in a specific environment. Because it uses so much energy, wild animals who opt for catastrophizing most likely won’t last long in the wild. In addition to reducing the amount of energy available for fulfilling body needs, any exaggerated behaviors that demonstrate such extreme vulnerability would attract predators. Consequently, catastrophizing in the wild environment would be maladaptive.

Wild animals in captivity might fare better, but whether they do depends on the quality of care available. When animals devote energy to catastrophizing, caregivers must possess the wherewithal to address this mental/emotional problem in addition to the animal’s other needs.  For organizations with limited funding, this may not be cost-effective.

What about in the companion animal realm? Compared to the wild animal environment or herdsmen or farmers caring for large numbers of livestock, companion animal owners may have lots more energy to expend on catastrophizing. Simultaneously, our pets also have more energy to devote to similar displays.

Suppose some demon possesses my normally laid-back dog, Frica, and she goes into catastrophizing mode when she cuts a foot pad. For those unfamiliar with canine foot pad anatomy, foot pads are essentially little self-refilling blood sponges contained in a leathery covering. Instead of one or two larger blood vessels, they have gobs of tiny ones called capillaries that are the diameter of one blood cell.  This drawing will give you an idea of how the blood vessels (veins and arteries) become smaller as they get further from the heart:

Consequently, foot pads bleed like crazy when cut. Unless you get  and keep pressure on the area somehow, the dog will leave bloody footprints all over your house. Treating these usually means applying a pressure bandage to the injured foot, although sutures may be needed in some cases.We all know fear and anxiety increase blood pressure and heart rate. (If you don’t, just pay attention to your own the next time you become upset.) Suppose  I freak out when I see those bloody little Frica footprints and Frica picks up my emotions via emotional contagion. When she does, her little heart starts pumping faster and her blood pressure rises too, just like mine. What do you think will happen to the blood supply to her cut foot pad?

If you said it would increase, you’re right. But how this will affect her behavior—and my attempts to put a pressure bandage on her foot—depends on our bond with each other. If she trusts me as her protector, she’ll accept handling and we’ll both calm down and do what needs to be done to bandage her foot asap.

Frica faux-catastrophizing

But suppose Frica considers herself my protector. Then my distress will cause her to resist being restrained long enough for me to properly bandage her bleeding foot. If I babied her every time she had a minor injury and reinforced her own catastrophizing tendencies, this human-canine role-reversal would add to her physical and behavioral pain. And naturally, as the amount of blood she flings about in her attempts to get away increases my hysteria, this would increase her attempts to get away from me. Not a good outcome for her or me any way you look at it!

Some dogs in this category even may bite their owners under these circumstances. And despite human emotional takes on this behavior, these dogs do this for very logical reasons. The combination of any physical pain from the cut plus the behavioral pain triggered by the anxious person’s restraint compromises the protective dog’s own survival as well as that of the person the animal must protect.

How we respond to our companion animals when they experience behavioral and physical pain boils down to a quality we often forget: mutual trust. When we catastrophize our animals’ problems, this changes their bonds with us. Our emotional response forces them to answer  a basic survival question that’s far important than love: Do I trust this distraught person to help me? When animals do, they’ll accept help from the person offering it. If that trust isn’t there, the animal will resist.

I’m not saying that everyone who lives with animals should know how to bandage a foot properly. (Although basic knowledge of animal first aid should be a given.) Nor should every pet owner know how to resolve complex behavioral problems. But pet-owners should trust themselves and their animals enough to apply meaningful damage control to prevent further harm. They shouldn’t wallow in their own emotions when their animals need them to be strong.

Admittedly, the bulk of human-companion animal-related media makes it easy to believe that love is the only emotion that matters in our relationships with our pets. Some sources even give the impression that love magically will resolve any problem that comes up. No one doubts how much Mary Doe loves her dog. But that doesn’t help the dog when he grabs her toxic  xlitol-laced sugar-free gum and she screams hysterically because she doesn’t trust him enough to pry open his mouth and remove it. Her love also means nothing if she’s afraid to physically block him from biting a child he doesn’t like for some reason.

Responding to our pets when they’re in pain is a lot like responding to our kids. At the time they need our help, we summon the wherewithal to put our own fears on hold and communicate our confidence and trust in ourselves and them to make it through the event. Even if we must fake it. Then when the crisis ends and the animal sleeps peacefully, we can sneak into another room and throw up or cry our eyes out. That’s what being a grown-up pet-owner is all about.

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