Dogs and Stress


If only we could help our dogs avoid negative situations, we would have very happy animals indeed. Alas, just like people, dogs face stressful situations daily. Often, it is up to us to help them avoid stressful situations and to develop coping skills in order for them to react in a healthy manner.

The state of stress in dogs was one of the key panel discussions featuring leading veterinary and behavior experts at the recent “Purina Better with Pets Summit” held in New York City. “Just like us, dogs face good stress and bad stress,” said Marty Becker, DVM, renowned veterinarian and best-selling author who served as this panel’s moderator. “Only when bad stress is chronic does it lead to health problems. Constant stress can be a recipe for illness, depression and a less-than quality of life.”

Some stress is actually good for our dogs, like the stress found in trying to figure out how to get treats out of a food puzzle. However, constant stimulation isn’t good for your dog either. So it is important for our pets to develop sound reactions to all kinds of stress, if it is negative stress. Some negative stress inducers are easy to identify in our dogs, like being inside a veterinary clinic, being chased by another dog, thunderstorms, verbal or physical corrections by an owner, riding in a car, in a large crowd of people, too much play or agitation just to name a few. As the panelists pointed out, the well-being of some dogs is impacted by stress sources that often go undetected. Over long periods of time, the presence of high amounts of adrenaline can cause serious damage to the body. When the dog’s blood pressure is continually high, damage begins to occur at branch points in arteries throughout the body, and fatty deposits begin to form a thickening of the blood vessel linings. It may take time for the negative results of chronic stress to become apparent, but because they are invisible, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

How can you tell if your dog is feeling stressed out? Here are some common signs:

  • Diarrhea, Vomiting
  • Panting
  • Excessive barking, whining
  • Aggression
  • Pacing
  • Excessive lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Tail tucking or excessive tail wagging
  • Leash biting
  • Excessive shedding, dandruff
  • Sweaty paws
  • Red eyes
  • Tense muscles
  • Dilated pupils
  • Shivering (when it’s not cold)

It is most important, also to remember that our dogs are very good at gauging — and responding to — our moods. They can pick up when we are afraid, anxious or unsure. “Some dogs suddenly start barking at other dogs on walks the second you get nervous and tighten your grip on the leash,” says Dr. Becker. “Dogs pick up on our emotional cues.”

Fortunately, pet experts are recognizing the impact stress can play on our dogs’ overall health and are doing more to identify stressors and symptoms. They are also taking steps to move away from using drugs and instead are going back to natural remedies. Some of which are hands on, traditional ones such as techniques used to help dogs relax like the TTouch Method by Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer who has conducted an in depth study of dogs’ “calming signals”. This system includes making a connection with the pads of the fingers to the dogs skin and moving the skin over the muscle in a clockwise circular motion. This can help your dog recover from stress while helping to reduce your own. Doing brief sessions of TTouch all over your dog’s body during quiet times can help fully activate the parasympathetic system and bring awareness of the relaxed state.

As discussed at the Purina summit, here are some innovative, stress-busting strategies now being adopted:

  • Opting for pastel, soft blues, pinks and yellows in shelters and veterinary clinics. “Think Easter colors,” says Dr. Becker. Turns out that studies show dogs are calmer in those colored-rooms than ones painted white or bright red, blue or yellow.
  • Enhancing stainless steel exam tables with heated pads for the dog to feel warm while having better footing.
  • Placing dogs that are up for adoption inside cages with horizontal bars instead of vertical ones. It turns out that horizontal bars are less threatening and give dogs better visibility of their surroundings.
  • Encouraging people pressed for time, to agree to be a shelter volunteer by spending 15 minutes sitting quietly in a room with a shelter dog. Experts are discovering that this quiet 15-minute interaction helps lower stress in some shelter dogs.
  • Replacing florescent lights with soft LED lights. It turns out that dogs are not only irritated and stressed by the flickering florescent lighting, but are also agitated by the noise these lights make.

Heather Lewis, an animal arts architect who is among the innovative pioneers redesigning veterinary clinics and shelters all over the country, shares this take-home message: “We have an opportunity and challenge to make life better for all animals, including those in the shelter and our pets,” says Lewis. “It is vital to think about environment from the animal’s perspective.”

-Adapted from INDUSTRY NEWS OF INTEREST by Arden Moore in Professional Pet Sitter · Spring 2016 and The Whole Dog Journal, January 2000.