Dig Your Dog Out of a Stressful Situation

|| March 2, 2018


Just like people, our pets can experience stress on a daily basis. Their bodies can compensate for this stress in a way that we may not even realize, but in some cases long-term stress can start to produce changes to their physiology that can be detrimental to their health.

The causes of stress can be just about anything depending on the individual animal, but some of the more obvious causes tend to be environmental. Loud noises such as storms and fireworks can commonly cause anxiety and stress in dogs. Dogs in particular can also have separation anxiety when an owner leaves. Cats on the other hand do not tend to adapt easily to change in an environment, such as moving. Both dogs and cats can become stressed when new members of the family enter the household, whether they are new pets or humans. Other stressful situations, besides the environment, can be illness, extreme temperatures, changes in diet, and trauma to name a few.

As owners, we do not have the luxury of asking our pets if they are stressed and therefore we must look for common signs and behaviors to ensure that they remain healthy. Common signs include lip licking, yawning, pinned back ears with a closed mouth, vocalizing/whining, panting, avoidance, and dilated pupils. Signs that can be seen with long-term stress include excessive shedding, decreased appetite or anorexia, diarrhea/vomiting, and inappropriate urination or defecation. If you notice these signs, it is important to think of what may be causing the stress, if it is reoccurring, or is it a constant stimulus.

There are other signs indicative of stress that may not be as obvious, such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increase respiratory rate, increased hormone levels, increased incidence of disease, and a decreased immune response.

So, why is it so important that we recognize these signs in our pet? If prolonged stress occurs, it can start to take its toll on the body. The gastrointestinal system may stop functioning, which can lead to weight loss. The immune system decreases in its efficiency, which can lead to more infections and decreased healing ability. And the body ends up putting more stress on the cardiovascular system. Dogs and cats can also have reproductive complications. Eventually, significant amounts of stress can lead to considerable sickness.

Dogs and cats can also have behavioral changes as a stress response that can ultimately lead to a negative interaction with their owner. Cats typically will avoid or hide if stressed but some cats will inappropriately urinate or defecate or even become aggressive.

Obviously this this can put a strain on the relationship between pet and owner. Dogs can also show these behavioral changes but some become destructive or frantic depending on the stress. To prevent behavioral and psychologic health problems caused by stress, your veterinarian should be at the top of your list to help you solve these problems and make appropriate changes in your pet's life.

We want our pets to be as happy and stress free as possible and while it may be impossible to stop or prevent all stressful situations, it is important to recognize when your pet is stressed and do what you can to comfort them or change the situation in order to prevent long-termm problems.

By Kerri Wiedmeyer, DVM - WVRC Emergency Services
This article originally ran in the Spring 2016 issue of Fetch Magazine.