Stress is a term that most people these days are familiar with.  It is quite easy to recognise when we are feeling stressed – we get less patient, less tolerant, irritable, overwhelmed, and more reactive.  What few of us realise is that the same thing happens to our cats and dogs.  We will focus here on canine stress and address feline stress in a separate article.

On an almost daily basis, many companion pets are experiencing stress.  Stress occurs when basic needs are not being met and frustration results, or when a situation feels challenging or threatening and goes beyond the individual’s coping skills.

Stress can be good and bad.  Good stress, or eustress, is essential to growth and development and is associated with stimulation, moderate exercise, excitement and learning.  A dog who is coping with stress is happy, alert, excited and confident. Negative stress, or distress, occurs when an individual cannot cope with their circumstances, and they respond with worry, irritation, frustration, anger or fear.  A well-adjusted, social dog would experience a visit to the dog beach as positive stress, whereas a fearful, anxious or timid dog would experience that same situation as negative stress.

eustress-and-distress

When an individual experiences stress (good or bad) there is an immediate rise in adrenaline, which raises pulse rate and blood pressure, and mobilises blood glucose, in preparation to freeze, fight or flee.  Cortisol levels also increase.  Adrenaline and cortisol are neurotransmitters, meaning they transmit signals to nerves, readying the body to take action.  Cortisol levels take 2-3 DAYS or longer to return to normal levels, and when frequent stressful events occur they NEVER get a chance to normalise.  So if your dog is playing a high-energy game of fetch, or visiting a busy dog park every day, it is likely they are in a chronic state of stress.

kelpie-fetch-ball

In the case of our dogs, stress overload can manifest as difficulty learning or focussing, noise sensitivity, high arousal, hypervigiliance, irritability, sensitivity to touch, fear, reactivity, and ‘aggression’.  You may have a dog that does not respond to requests, that barks persistently at the fence line, is constantly on high alert, or is reactive on approach or touch.  Usually these dogs are displaying many other symptoms of stress and often these go unnoticed.  Signs of stress can be subtle and include scratching, biting/chewing themselves, restlessness, constantly jumping up, shadowing their owner, lip licking, yawning, digging, barking, howling, whining, panting, anxiety when left alone and allergy symptoms.

dog-home-alone-through-fence

We expect our dogs to cope with many scenarios that we consider to be normal or fun or easy when for our dogs these situations can actually cause them a great deal of stress.  Watch a dog that is being walked around a busy farmer’s market for example.  Dogs are usually walked on a collar and short leash, and are expected to remain in the heel position or closeby to the owner.  Their freedom of movement is restricted, and they are unable to explore or investigate their surroundings without being reprimanded and reminded to remain in the heel position.  The constant jerking motion of the collar on the neck provides a physical stress signal as this impedes the animal’s ability to breathe.  Then when they opt to try to calm themselves down by putting their nose to the ground to sniff (the act of sniffing is very calming for dogs), they are jerked along again.

dog-pulling-to-sniff

Most behaviour problems with pets, especially the more serious ones such as aggression, are the result of stress.  If you have a dog with a behaviour ‘problem’, look to identify stress factors in your dog’s life, and remove as many as you can.  Allow your dog adequate time between stressful events to rest and restore (minimum 2-3 days).  Then assess how well they cope with their world and whether they may need some assistance in building their confidence and learning positive coping strategies to better deal with stressful situations.

We will be running various ‘Path to Wellness’ workshops in 2017 including workshops on doggy stress – its causes and the cures.  If you would like to register your interest for these please email hello@thenaturalvets.com.au