Heightened sensitivity is a documented trait for both people and pets. In fact, estimates suggest up to 20 percent of any given species population may carry the markers for high sensitivity. But what does “highly sensitive” or “hsp” really mean? What does this trait look like in action? Is there an easy and reliable way to figure out if your personal pet is highly sensitive? Most importantly, what do highly sensitive pets need to feel safe and happy and stay healthy? In this post, animal intuitive Shannon Cutts talks about highly sensitive pets, their traits and qualities and special needs.
I’ve blogged about the HSPet before, but there is still so much to say about this important and often overlooked sub-set of the population of companion animals.
For instance….who are they? How can you identify them? Does your interspecies family include a highly sensitive pet? `1
To find out, let’s start with a little HSPet Quiz.
(NOTE: Accuracy is important here, so if you and your pet are still getting to know each other, feel free to bookmark this blog post and take some time to observe your animal before answering.)
Highly Sensitive Pet (HSPet) Quiz
Instructions: Answer “True” or “False” for each of the statements below. Then complete the rating section that follows to gauge where your pet may fall on the spectrum of high sensitivity.
- My animal startles easily and often (over)reacts to sudden or sustained loud sounds, bright lights or shadows, unfamiliar environments or even textures.
- My animal has a hard time coping with any changes to their regular daily routine – this inflexibility is not linked to known past trauma and has always been present.
- My animal exhibits a strong preference (that is not part of another known breed or species-specific trait group) for the company of one or two well known individuals (people and/or animals) and typically gives all others a wide berth.
- My animal craves closeness with me and/or other trusted and loved individuals (people or animals) but is easily overwhelmed by the same and may suddenly retreat or withdraw into solitude.
- My animal either a) dislikes being touched or b) likes being touched but cannot tolerate it for long.
- My animal enjoys their own company and even seeks out solitude in other rooms or outdoors where no other people or pets are present.
- My animal has a hard time in the spotlight (such as during shows or agility competitions or in training classes) and may act out, retreat or “forget” even well-known commands or abilities in these situations.
- My animal can become reactive or intensely solicitous when I am feeling unwell physically, emotionally or mentally.
- My animal has a low pain tolerance that is not related to other breed or species-specific traits.
- When my animal loves someone or something, they love hard. When they do not like someone or something, everyone knows it.
- My animal is a natural caretaker and just seems to have a knack for knowing who in a group of people needs extra attention or support.
- My animal tends to have a sensitive stomach and even a little nibble of the wrong thing can trigger digestive upset which is often accompanied by mental or emotional as well as physical symptoms.
- My animal absolutely has to eat all meals and snacks right on time and strongly prefers the same daily menu – it is hard to get them to try anything new.
- My animal has a hard time bouncing back after setbacks or changes of any kind (examples might be discipline/punishment, veterinary visits, moves, losses, vacation separations and similar).
- My animal loves to be comfortable and will go to great lengths to find the coziest position or the softest place or the warmest/coolest surface to relax on.
- If anything changes in my animal’s regular environment, they notice right away – often even before I notice it myself – and may change their behavior until the changed thing is removed or corrected.
- My animal often responds to situations differently than the norm for their breed or species.
- My animal has a strong drive for safety and security to the point where submission/aggression, resource guarding, reactivity and separation anxiety can at times crop up.
- My animal is always on alert in a way that often appears to be anxiety or uneasiness.
- My animal has been labeled by others as “different,” “special,” “shy,” “avoidant,” “extra” or even “unsociable” by others….and, if I’m being totally honest, by me as well.
Results: If you answered “True” to at least 10 of these statements, and your response is not linked to another known species or breed trait or issue, your pet may have the trait of high sensitivity.
NOTE: The above statements have been adapted from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Elaine Aron and you may find it helpful to refer back to her quiz for people as a point of reference as well as to further your understanding of your pet’s inborn traits and temperament type.
So how is the trait of high sensitivity in pets different than the condition of anxiety, nervousness or related conditions or diagnoses?
While plenty of interesting research has been done into the trait of high sensitivity in people, and at least one such study made an attempt to find the same in dogs, it is likely we still know less rather than more about HSPs in general.
What we do know is that high sensitivity is not a diagnosis based on the presence of a condition or disease.
Instead, high sensitivity appears to be an inborn trait that offers certain evolutionary advantages under certain sets of circumstances.
Particularly, individuals who do possess the trait of high sensitivity tend to be better at holding a big picture view of their environment while at the same time noting small subtleties and nuances that might be important. This means HSPs, people and pets alike, may be absorbing and responding to unusually high quantities of information at any given time. This is what can contribute to the overwhelm and corresponding reactive behavior – fight, flight, freeze, tend and befriend – they employ to cope.
What does all this mean for you and your highly sensitive pet? One thing it may mean is that your bond is unusually strong and you rely on each other to a degree other humans may regard as odd or even maladaptive. But the truth is, at least one of you is sufficiently hyper vigilant to anything and everything. And that in itself can create an ongoing intensity outsiders won’t be able to understand.
What if both you and your pet are highly sensitive?
I can speak to that personally. I have the trait of high sensitivity myself. Two of my four animal companions also have the trait. The bond I feel with all of them is heightened because of my high sensitivity. But the bond I share with my two highly sensitive pets borders on, well, obsessive (at least to use others’ words). To us, however, it simply feels like an unusually close match in love languages that is deeply fulfilling.
It is also occasionally the cause of come-closer-go-away syndrome for us. Because we are both highly sensitive, we both need more alone time than everyone else in the family. And we both also need to be together more than everyone else in our flock. So even when we are absolutely sick of each other or more exhausted than continued togetherness can bear, we don’t like to be separated.
Having shared that, the most important fact to anchor to here is that each highly sensitive person and highly sensitive pet will exhibit the trait in their own way. Each highly sensitive being also brings their unique personality and temperament, background and life experiences into the mix. Relationally speaking, the same holds true. Your connection with your highly sensitive pet isn’t going to look exactly like mine or somebody else’s, whether you are also highly sensitive or not.
But taking the time to understand what we do known about the highly sensitive trait has so much value regardless.
Whether your pet is new to your family and you feel like you are struggling to figure out how they are wired and what makes them tick (or sets them off), learning about the HSPet is going to give you another perspective to work with.
If you are a HSP yourself, it may also help you deepen your understanding of why you chose this animal and what they are mirroring or modeling for you in your life.
Most of all, by gathering more information on the highly sensitive trait, you will also be gathering more compassion for challenges that may come along with a heritable trait as well as opportunities sharing life with a highly sensitive soul pet offer.
Do you wonder or know that your pet is highly sensitive? Would it help you to have deeper insight into how your animal inhabits and experiences their world and their daily life with you? I can help. I specialize in highly sensitive pets and their people.
Enjoy a free video series I created to help guardians of highly sensitive pets better understand your animal’s unique temperament and special needs.
You may also enjoy this special podcast episode from Let’s Talk to Animals where I share very personal experiences of discovering I am a Highly Sensitive Person as well as stories about caring for several HSPets.
Consider scheduling an animal communication session to hear from your HSPet directly about what they want and need to feel happy and stay healthy.