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How Stress Impacts Your Pet's Health

Just like it does in people, stress can cause a lot of trouble for pets.

If you don’t address it quickly and properly, it can lead to major issues down the line, especially if you have an older dog or one who already has health issues. “The best way to watch for stress in your dog is to closely monitor their behavior,” says Dr. Jessica Trimble, DVM, an internal medicine veterinarian with Fuzzy Pet Health. “Many dogs will pant, pace, whine or yawn more frequently. Watching their ear, head, and tail position can also help indicate how comfortable they are with a situation.” If you think your dog is experiencing stress, talk to your veterinarian, especially if you notice changes in his behavior, eating habits or energy. Here are things to watch out for if you suspect your dog is stressed.

Stress Can Cause Tummy Trouble

When your dog gets stressed or anxious, the nervous system kicks up a notch due to the increased adrenaline and stress hormones, according to Trimble. “This doesn't affect just the brain, though—the gastrointestinal system has a large number of nerves,” Trimble says. “The increased activity of the nerves cause spasms of the intestines; the stress hormones can direct blood away from the intestines; this causes diarrhea and/or vomiting-sometimes immediately, but it can occur up to 48 hours after the stressful event.”

Stress Affects the Immune System

Stress can negatively affect the immune system, which can make it more likely for them to get sick. Stress hormones cause a decrease in the production of certain white blood cells that create antibodies and fight off bacteria and viruses. This is part of the reason that dogs in boarding facilities pass diseases around-they are stressed about being away from home and in close contact with other dogs-and their viruses.

Stress Can Affect Appetite

Short-term stress can change your pet's interest in food, according to Jackie Maffucci, a PHD neuroscientist and animal behavior consultant at Positive Dog Solutions. “Chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, which causes an increase in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure-your acute stress response,” says Maffucci. “When all of this is happening the functions in the body affected by the parasympathetic nervous system, such as appetite, are depressed.” For long-term stress, however, the exact opposite might be true. “Chronic but milder stress can cause an increase in appetite-cats especially like to stress-eat,” according to Trimble.

Stress Can Cause Inappropriate Urination

If your dog is suddenly urinating inside the house or your cat is not using the litter box, these could be signs of stress. “For dogs and cats both, stressors can lead to regression on training-they literally forget their potty training in times of stress because they're focused on what is making them anxious,” says Trimble. “For cats, stress can cause something called "FIC"-feline idiopathic cystitis-which basically means bladder inflammation; inflammation in the bladder causes the need to go more frequently, and often will result in urinating in inappropriate places.”
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Adjusting Your Environment

If you suspect your dog is stressed, Trimble recommends looking around to see if anything has changed recently that could have triggered this response in your dog. “Change to routines, kids, visitors, construction next door, rearranging the living room, new dog walker, even a change in your cleaning supplies can be stressful to your pet,” says Trimble. “Your own stress can matter, too-we often see pets that reflect their owner's stresses.” If at all possible, try to eliminate or resolve any new changes so whatever is causing stress goes away on its own—especially if you add more play or outdoor time to your pet’s day. “Routines are great for stress relief—and the extra play and exercise will increase those happy endorphins,” says Trimble. Using a white noise machine in the home to dampen noises from the outside environment and providing a quiet place for downtime and ensuing downtime is part of a regular schedule are also important, adds Maffucci.

Helping Your Dog Chill Out

Although there are many products in the market to help reduce pet stress, not all of them work for every animal, depending on personality, what’s causing the stress and how long the problem has been going on. “I do often recommend to my clients that they try a pheromone plug-in or collar like the Adaptil collar to see if it has an impact,” says Maffucci. “Massage can also help, or in the least, soft, long strokes while petting can be much more calming than shorter, quicker strokes.” Ensuring your dog has a nice balance of physical and mental stimulation along with rest time is also critical, according to Maffucci. “Physical stimulation might be a walk or playing fetch or tug with toys, mental stimulation might be a training session or figuring out a puzzle toy,” Maffucci says. She adds that enrichment or mental exercise is critical to help fight stress and give your pets a well-balanced, happy life. “Most all dogs were bred to work, and for the vast majority of dogs now, their job is to wait for their humans to come home from work,” says Maffucci. “Getting creative with puzzle toys and other enrichment games is critical to making sure they don't get bored.” If you’ve tried everything and your pet still seems stressed—or if you’re seeing things like diarrhea, serious changes in appetite or other signs that something’s wrong—it might be time to go see a vet. “They can make sure that the symptoms are due to stress and not an underlying medical condition,” says Trimble. “They also can provide diet suggestions that are easier to digest for the poor pets that get stress-diarrhea, anti-anxiety medications, and training plans.”

Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at
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