Stress plays a role in every life. For some pets, stress can be particularly traumatizing or chronic. Knowing the signs of stress and using methods to prevent and alleviate stress can improve a pet’s quality of life and stave off certain illnesses.
Causes of Pet Stress
Our pets find plenty of sources of stress within their lives. It probably comes as no surprise that car rides, doctor visits, storms, fireworks, and baths are common stressors for many pets. Others include introductions of new pets or humans into the household, moving residences, illness or trauma, punishment for natural behaviors, or anything that disrupts a pet’s normal routine.
Pets can even catch stress from their super-stressed humans. A recent study1 has shown that dogs with chronically stressed humans can also suffer from chronic stress.
Signs of Stress
Because communication with our pets happens on a different level than with our fellow humans, we have to watch closely for signs of anxiety or discomfort in our pets. Here are a few clues that something isn’t right:
- Inappropriate elimination
- Tail tucking
- Lack of appetite
- Excessive grooming/licking/chewing
- Destructive behavior
- Excessive pacing
- Excessive panting/yawning
- Increased vocalization
These symptoms, alone or in combination, can signal a pet is experiencing significant stress or another condition that requires attention. If you notice them, speak with your veterinarian.
How Stress Affects Pets’ Health
Stress can affect pets’ physical well-being in addition to their mental well-being. At least one study2 has shown that stress can shorten the lives of dogs and increase instances of illness. Stress raises levels of cortisol and increases adrenaline production. It can weaken immune systems, elevate blood pressure, and contribute to heart, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and skin conditions. Stress can also result in long-term behavioral problems.
How to Reduce or Prevent Pet Stress
Fortunately, there are several ways we can prevent or reduce pet stress, be it situational or chronic. It starts with keeping pets healthy with proper nutrition and exercise and routine veterinarian care.
To ease clinic-visit stress, start as young as possible with getting pets accustomed to being handled, especially around their mouths, ears, and feet. Slowly and gently, train them to love their crates and tolerate car rides.
When introducing new places, people, or pets, keep as many routines as intact as possible including feeding times, bed times, and walking times and routes. Surround pets with their own belongings such as food and water bowls, litter pans, toys, beds, and blankets. Sharing with new pets often exacerbates stress. Whenever possible, provide each pet with their own set of belongings.
Create a safe and quiet space to which pets can retreat. This could be an enclosed room or their crate, or both. Make sure to provide familiar, comforting belongings.
Evaluate expectations. Our pets may be family, but they aren’t humans. They will bark at squirrels, get hair on the sofa, and sometimes poop on the grass. Teaching good manners and appropriate behaviors is necessary, but punishment for not living up to certain human expectations can stress pets.
Use positive reinforcement (rewards for good behavior and) rather than harsh punishment. If a dog chews a shoe, take it away and replace it with a toy. Yelling, hitting, shocking, and other aggressive training methods can cause and heighten stress and as well as negatively impact future behaviors.
All pets have some stress at some point. Some pets are affected by stress more so than others are. By noticing what triggers stress and taking some simple steps, we can reduce our pets’ stress and increase their happiness and good health. If you have a stressed pet, experiment with techniques that may relieve them, and talk to your veterinarian.
- Sundman, Ann-Sofie et al. “Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners.” Scientific reports vol. 9,1 7391. 6 Jun. 2019, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-43851-x
- Nancy Dreschel (2010). The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 125, 157–162