Stress and your pets health

Stress is negative feedback received by a pet. For instance, when a dog is under stress, the body goes into an altered state and this affects various physical functions within the body. Continued exposure to negative stress factors will ultimately result in negative affects to a pet’s health. In fact, count on it.

In simplistic terms, “stress alters the normal state of the body’s feedback controls systems”, as stated in Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book “Stress in Dogs”.

What does stress look like in your pet? When a pet is under stress they are not focused, they may appear hyperactive, they might exhibit one or all of the four behaviors due to a chemical bath in the brain, such as flight, fight, fool around or freeze. They will be shy, timid or fearful and have trouble acclimating to their own environment or to the outside world. A dog who is stressed will exhibit many more behavioral challenges than a dog who is comfortable and secure. Stress will also cause immediate body tension and reactions in the form of lunging, over-barking, high-drive, and aggression.

Stress gets the adrenalin pumping causing a chemical bath in the brain. Too much bad stress can have a definite affect on heart, lungs, brain, neurological system, immune system and more.

A pet who is under constant stress and cannot calm down will have medical problems, possibly even neurological problems, bone tenseness, even become depressed or unable to cope with real life situations and may become aggressive, or even shy. A dog who cannot cope is a disaster waiting to happen.

Health problems caused by stress are allergies, blood pressure fluctuations, diarrhea, digestive discomfort, hair loss, immune system problems, kidney problems, over-eating and sleep deprivation.

The challenges

• Allergies

Stress continuing over long periods of time weaken the immune system because of increased levels of cortisol taxing the pituitary gland. One of the side affects is allergic reactions to various environmental causes. The allergy’s shelf-life may be longer and worse because the dog is under stress.

• Blood pressure fluctuations

While dogs and most pets do not have heart problems like their humans, adrenalin release can cause differences in the body such as raised pulse rate and increased cardiovascular activity. Adrenalin impacts the pituitary gland. Working with dogs daily barraged by stress and stressful situations, it is common to see a dog suddenly lie down out of exhaustion because this is what the stress is stimulating in the body. It is not because the dog is relaxed, it is because the dog’s body is exhausted from the stress it has been presented, and is re-energizing itself.

• Diarrhea

A common complaint of owners with dogs under stress is diarrhea. A consistent elevated level of cortisol in the blood weakens the immune system and causes stomach upsets, digestive disorders resulting in ulcers and chronic diarrhea. In the long term this means damage to the adrenal gland. Often,this writerI sees this in clients who show their dogs. They experience diarrhea induced by stress. If the dog is put in situations it is unable to positively internalize, the result is chronic diarrhea.

• Digestive discomfort

Stress brings with it symptoms such as diarrhea, explained above, and vomiting. Dogs particularly susceptible are Belgian Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, Collies, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Stress now has caused major discomfort, even pain.

• Hair loss

Over a long term stress hair loss is either a result of the stress or a symptom. Bald patches appearing in the coat, general sick-looking coat exhibiting loss of hair, dandruff, sunken eyes, sagging or crouched posture and tail hanging low are all indicators stress is present. Overall the body posture is not balanced or normal looking.

• Immune system problems

Cortisol released under stress in the body weakens the immune system. Then the pet experiences distress of an acute nature. One disease of the immune system is hypothyroidism. Other symptoms could be aggression.

• Kidney problems

If stress affects digestion, immune system, causes diarrhea, it is certainly plausible it will affect the bladder and kidneys. “Under stress, aldosterone is released and coupled with adrenaline, stimulates kidney activity, resulting in increased urination. A male dog that constantly marks everywhere might be seriously stressed” as acknowledged by “Stress In Dogs” by Scholz and Reinhardt.

When this writer hears a client say their dog is marking indoors, or she sees a dog constantly marking outdoors, her reaction is this is a dog who is under stress. The owner may or may not see it, or scratch this behavior off as normal, or irritating. There is much more going on inside a dog like this.

• Over-eating

Over-eating in and of itself causes health problems in pets. Most likely it is happening because the dog is stressed. The cure is finding exactly what is causing the over-eating. It can result in life-threatening bloat, intestinal blockage and injuries to the digestive system.

• Sleep deprivation

When this occurs illness or pain may have already set in. Pets need safe zones where they can sleep uninterrupted and be distraction-free. Dogs need a continuous night’s sleep to be able to cope with real life and when a pet’s sleep requirements are not met, ignored, not taken seriously or deprived, other health problems can quickly crop up. A stressed dog will be a sleep-deprived dog.

The job of the owner of a pet who is stressed? To provide a safe, secure environment and to show enough guidance where the pet looks to you as an anchor in a scary environment. This involves owner as educator, provider, and requires creation of trust and respect from the pet. It involves positive reward-based training to develop a confident animal. It requires preparing the pet’s
environment to meet their needs.