Penny A. Watkins-Zdrojewski
© September 2012
This article focuses on a common issue that affects both health and behavior in pets. Recently, Buddy, our 9-year old Australian Cattle Dog mix, had an experience that reminded me just how much stress can affect our pets. He became agitated by a wild animal and tried to go over our fence, cutting his leg in the process. While sitting in the ER waiting room in the wee hours of the morning, I realized what a good lesson he was teaching me.
- Did you know that many behavior problems are caused by stress?
- Did you know that stress can be caused by underlying health concerns?
- Did you know that stress is one of the leading causes of illness and death in animals?
Read on to learn about how stress works, causes, effects and tools you can use to help your pet.
How does stress work?
When a stressful situation or stimulant is present, animals, like humans, respond with changes that are physiological, psychological, emotional, and behavioral. Nearly every system in the body responds in some way. The endocrine system produces an overabundance of corticosteroids, and the ability to produce and absorb “good” brain chemicals, such as serotonin and endorphins, is greatly decreased.
The mere presence of stressful stimulants is not the biggest problem. More important is how the animal deals with stress—how well they are able to cope, and how long their systems continue to be affected.
Acute Stress And Chronic Stress
Acute stress is generally a short lived response to a one-time event, such as a trip to the vet or a thunderstorm. Acute stress is generally not a problem, provided your pet can respond to the stress in appropriate ways and quickly recover from its effects. Buddy’s injury and treatment caused acute stress, from which he was able to recover pretty quickly.
Chronic stress results from long-time or multiple experiences of stress, resulting in a state of ongoing physical arousal. Effects of stress can continue long after the cause is gone. Chronic stress is often more difficult to recognize and alleviate. The causes may be hidden, and you may need to enlist professional help. Chronic stress, left undiagnosed and unmanaged, will generally continue to increase, leading your beloved pet to live in a constant state of anxiety, stress, unbalance and un-wellness.
Animals are built to handle acute stress, which is short-lived, but not chronic stress, which is steady continual.
Effects of Stress
Chronic stress can adversely affect the immune, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems, create or intensify anxiety, strain the heart, create chemical imbalances, and contribute to the development of major illnesses.
Causes of Stress
The causes of stress may be environmental, situational, or physical. Stressful situations cause physical changes, and some physical factors can be the cause of stress. The mental/emotional aspects of stress and the physical aspects of stress are intricately connected. It is very common for animals with chronic physical issues, such as undiagnosed or untreated chronic pain, to exhibit behavior problems. Therefore, when choosing how to deal with stress, it is very important to look at all aspects of your pet’s life—environmental, social, emotional, psychological, and physical
Some stress, particularly acute stress, is obvious – the cat that fights getting into its carrier to go to the vet; the dog that doesn’t like its nails trimmed; the rabbit that bolts or charges when its going to be picked up. Other types of stress are less obvious.
An increasing number of household pets are rescues, adopted from shelters and rescue groups. These animals may have experienced days, weeks or years of stress about which we have no knowledge. Pets adopted through the very best, reputable breeders may not be stress-free.
Hidden stress is often a major cause of behavior issues. It can also cause a host of health concerns. And undiagnosed or untreated health issues can also be a major source of hidden stress.
Regardless of the cause of stress, known or unknown, there are ways to help your pet.
Tools to Manage and Alleviate Stress
In cases of acute stress, you will generally know the cause – loud noises, fear of a vet visit, injuries, strangers visiting, and so on. Some of the tools discussed below can help your pet deal with these acute situations. For chronic stress, whether the cause is known or unknown, there are several things you can do to help your pet cope with stress, relax, and become the best they can be – mentally, physically and emotionally balanced.
If you know that certain things cause stress for your pet, think about ways you can make changes so that the instance, situation or environment is less stressful. For example, our dog Murphy reacts to the sound of pop cans being opened – he barks and becomes hyper-vigilant. We invite him to sniff the can and watch us open it, then reward him when he reacts calmly, which he now does nearly all of the time.
Your pet may need a multidiscipline approach, combining two or more tools or therapies. This will depend on the degree of stress, underlying causes, how long they have been experiencing symptoms, and your pet as an individual. When working with professionals, let each know what you are doing with the other. Whenever possible, it is best to have your professionals share information and collaborate with one another.
- Exercise and Play help to release physical tension and stimulate the mind. Spend some time each day actively engaging your pet in play time or stimulating walks.
- Healthy Food is essential. If your pet’s food has ingredients that they cannot digest well or that turn into too many sugars in the system, they can experience digestive distress, compromised immune systems, anxiety and a host of other issues. The problems may show up as physical issues, anxiety, behavior concerns, or a combination. My last newsletter discussed commercial foods in depth. If you would like a copy, just let me know.
- Therapeutic Touch
- Therapeutic touch begins with mindful touch – simply be aware of how you are petting and holding your animal, and more importantly, the effects of your touch on your pet.
- Massage can decrease physical tension and help your pet relax.
- TTouch can also decrease physical tension and help your pet relax. Moreover, it can promote a greater state of calm and balance. By influencing the mind-body connection and central nervous system, TTouch can help your animal change patterns, learn new behaviors, and improve many physical conditions that cause stress.
- Music can help with both acute and chronic stress. For noise phobias, try rock- or world-music with a strong, steady beat. For soothing in general, calm, low-key classical music can be beneficial. There are also CDs orchestrated specifically to promote a sense of calm.
- Pheromone products are available for dogs and cats. They mimic a mother’s natural comforting pheromones to calm stress and relieve anxiety.
- Diagnose and treat underlying causes, whether physical or mental. It is usually necessary to consult a professional for help. Professional counselors, veterinarians and behaviorists not only have the training to evaluate your pet and suggest solutions, but can view your pet from a different perspective, noting things that can easily be overlooked by someone who lives with the animal.
- Behavior Modification uses operant conditioning to replace undesirable behaviors with more desirable ones. You can teach your pet an appropriate activity to do each time they encounter a specific stressful stimulus. This will help them to know what to do, will reduce their internal conflict, and help them relax.
- Natural Supplements come in many varieties and forms that can help with different types of acute or chronic stress.
- Bach Flower Remedies help animals as well as humans. Rescue Remedy can help acute stress and can be found at most health food stores. Certified Bach practitioners can create formulas for your pet’s specific needs.
- Homeopathic Remedies are available in formulations for either acute or chronic stress. Homeopet® has a line of anxiety remedies developed for pets.
- Vitamins, Fish Oil, Joint Support Supplements and Digestive Aids can help to alleviate the symptoms and reduce the effects of certain health conditions, thereby reducing associated stress. Before using these, consult your licensed veterinarian.
- Medications can be prescribed by your veterinarian or a Veterinary Behaviorist. The current thinking among most Veterinary Behaviorists is to use psychoactive medications only for as long as it takes for the animal to be calm and learn appropriate behaviors, then wean them off of the medication. They can also prescribe natural supplements, such as Composure, that have a strong calming effect.
Consulting a Professional
Seeking professional help for pet stress management is wise. Animal Wellness Counselors (like me), Animal Behaviorists, and Veterinary Behaviorists can help identify the symptoms and underlying causes of stress in your pet, then work with you to develop a plan to reduce your pet’s stress. When choosing a professional, ask questions: are they certified, and in what; where did they get their training; how long have they been doing this; what kind of success have they had; what kind of work will they do with your pet; will they consult with your veterinarian and other professionals?
Buddy’s Experience and Outcome
Buddy was able to handle all of the activities and treatments in the ER pretty well. While I was with him, I was able to do some TTouch techniques to help him. The ER veterinarians took an interest and learned how to do TTouch Earslides to help him when I was not allowed to be with him. I also used Earslides and other TTouches to help reduce my own stress.
Buddy is doing well now, and the entire experience is a distant memory for him, if that. With the help of stress-reduction techniques and my use of TTouch, his wound healed remarkably fast, and he has completely recovered from the physical and emotional effects of spending 10 days in an e-collar.
Stress in pets is difficult. It affects their mental, emotional and physical well-being, and it affects the well-being of the humans who live with them. With careful observation, the use of stress-reducing tools, and the help of a professional to determine causes and the best approaches to management, you and your pet can lead a happy, well-balanced life together.
CONTACT HAPPY PAWZ
Contact me for additional information and help. You can request a phone consultation for assistance on these tips, or we can schedule an assessment and work session in your home.