Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby

Let’s talk about all the good things, and the bad things, that it brings…

“You need to observe them and know them when they are well in order to recognise when something is amiss.”

It might be easy to assume that dogs have an easy life. It’s eat, walk, play, sleep, repeat. What could possibly be stressful about that?

Before you assume you know exactly how your dog feels at all times, keep in mind the basic needs of dogs:

sufficient rest and sleep

appropriate nutrition

sufficient mental and physical exercise

access to water

sufficient opportunities for toileting

good physical and emotional health

comfortable social structure

ability to make choices

The lack of one of more of these could, and likely will, result in stress for dogs.

Notice also that “sufficient” could be different things to different dogs; frequency of rest, food, exercise, toileting, etc. depends on factors such as a dog’s age, energy levels, genetic makeup, and state of health. Young dogs will need to sleep and eat more often, older dogs may need to sleep and pee more and have shorter but slightly more frequent, slow walks.

How do you know what’s sufficient? By knowing and observing your dog. For example, some dogs are pickier eaters than others, some dogs more active than others, and some dogs more sociable than others, so comparing one dog to another would not help much in understanding what is normal or sufficient for individual dogs. You need to observe them and know their habits, routines and behaviours when they are well in order to know what is normal for them as well as to recognise when something is amiss.

“The key to recognising and treating stress lies in observation and understanding”

The causes of stress in dogs, much like in humans, can be varied and extensive. Stress could be caused by things like:

  • lack of sleep
  • lack of nutrition
  • lack of mental “exercise”
  • lack of social contact or sense of community
  • too much physical exertion without sufficient rest and recuperation
  • too little physical exercise and too few opportunities for sniffing
  • a sudden change to normal routines or family unit
  • a stressful environment
  • too much noise and activity without opportunity to retreat to a safe place
  • pain
  • fear
  • emotional or social punishment (reprimanding, bullying, isolation, etc.)

as well as a whole host of other possible causes.

The signs of stress can be varied and extensive as well. In dogs, some of the most common signs of stress include:

  • a loss of appetite
  • increased used of calming signals
  • increased use of distance increasing signals
  • excessive panting
  • sweaty paws
  • digestive issues, such as diarrhoea, constipation, or vomiting
  • excessive shedding (outside of usual molting periods)
  • change in social habits, such as increased clinginess or increased avoidance/hiding
  • change in activity levels, such as increased sleeping or hyperactivity
  • destructive behaviour
  • excessive or obsessive grooming or sniffing
  • sudden peeing accidents inside (for a dog that was previously house-trained)
  • excessive vocalizations
  • other physical symptoms, such as sudden allergic reactions, skin problems, unusual smell, etc.

As it is probably obvious from the above list, the symptoms of stress can be incredibly varied and even subtle. A dog may display one or more symptoms, and he/she may display those symptoms very frequently or only occasionally. Whatever the situation, whatever the symptom, and however often it occurs, the key to recognising and treating stress lies in observation and understanding. You must observe your dog to understand and know them, and once you understand and know them in a non-stressed state, you will be so much better at spotting signs of stress and probably also at being able to identify what that stress might have been caused by.

It’s also worth remembering that many of these symptoms can of course also be symptoms of other illnesses or conditions, so consulting a veterinarian is always recommended whenever you become concerned about your dog’s well-being.

“Chronic stress is just as harmful for our pets as it is for us”

The physical and emotional effects of stress in dogs are in many ways similar to the effects of stress on humans.

The onset of stress triggers the release of certain hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol, in the body, as part of the fight-or-flight response, which are designed to help the brain and the body deal with this stressful situation as soon as possible. The release of these hormones triggers physical responses, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, and directing blood flow to the muscles. In the short term this stress reaction is positive since it’s designed to help ensure survival.

However, in the long term, the presence of these stress hormones can have some harmful and potentially much more long-term effects on the body and mind. The effects of chronic stress have been widely discussed and documented in humans, because it’s becoming a much more common and wide-spread issue with far-reaching consequences. Chronic stress in dogs has the potential to be equally harmful, which is why it is all the more important for us dog owners and carers to be able to recognise it and address it as soon as possible.

Effects of chronic stress in dogs include:

  • lowered immune response, leading to more frequent ailments and illnesses
  • decreased ability to concentrate, focus, learn, and remember
  • fur loss and slowed growth of fur
  • skin changes, usually resulting in drier, itchier skin
  • changes in personality, usually resulting in being more withdrawn and irritable

To get a good idea of how chronic stress might affect your dog just looking up the effects of chronic stress on humans is a good place to start. Chronic stress is just as harmful for our pets as it is for us.

It is often said and surely always true that prevention is the best medicine. So, now that you know some of the causes of stress, the best thing you could do for your dog is to minimize the presence of those and other causes in your dog’s life. For example, you could do this by:

  • establishing comfortable and reliable routines
  • avoiding prolonged or very frequent periods of social isolation
  • ensuring your dog is getting the right amount and type of nutrition
  • keeping water and a choice of resting or “safe” places always available

Now that you also know many of the signs of stress in dogs you are more likely to recognise when stress is creeping in and can take action sooner rather than later. If your dog is or gets stressed the first and most important thing to consider is what the root cause of the stress might be. Without knowing the root cause of the stress it will be practically impossible to really address the stress properly. Observe your dog to know your dog to understand their needs and potential problems better.

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