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How Stress Affects Dog Health

Stress is a complicated topic, but we'll break it down into easily digestible and applicable portions so you can help manage stress in your furry friends. 

How Stress Affects Dog Health

Stress is a complicated topic, but we'll break it down into easily digestible and applicable portions so you can help manage stress in your furry friends. 

By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Professional / Reviewed by Dr. Amy Learn, DVM, DACVB

Types, degrees, and terms to describe stress can vary widely depending on who you ask and what profession the person defining the terms practices. What remains the same is the knowledge that, like humans, stress directly influences your dog's health and wellness — negatively and positively.

Understanding how different types of stress affect your furry best friend, managing stress, and preventing unnecessary stress can significantly impact your pup's mental and physical wellbeing

Stress is a complicated topic, but we'll break it down into easily digestible and applicable portions so you can help manage stress in your furry friends

What is Stress in Dogs?

Stress is a response to environmental change or pressure, generally involving physiological and behavioral responses. Stress may be considered normal or abnormal based on how the dog reacts to the pressure they are experiencing.

The stress response is a normal and valuable part of the survival mechanism that gets our dogs out of dangerous situations. While the stress response is necessary and helpful, it can become overactive, leading to negative behavioral and physiological changes that can harm our beloved dogs if not addressed. 

Before we can manage stress and prevent unnecessary responses to it, it helps to understand the differences in the types of stress your dog experiences

Types of Stress Dogs May Experience

Not all stress is created equal. In simple terms, there is "good stress" and "bad stress." Determining whether stress is good or bad depends on how the dog responds (physically and mentally) in a specific situation. Like behavior, responses to various stressors can vary significantly based on the environment or situation. 

Stress exists on a spectrum with a positive end — trending toward "eustress" (good stress) — and a negative end — "distress" (bad stress). Viewing stress as a sliding scale can help visualize how it can go from being a typical or neutral response to tipping in the good or bad direction. 

Eustress is a healthy response to a stressor in the brain and body that leads to positive growth or excitatory feelings of happiness. Distress has a negative effect on the brain and body. This stress response often involves an intense fear, such as separation anxiety, and has negative mental and physical consequences for the dog. Distress is more complicated to recover from than negative stress. 

Stress at the midline is a normal response to environmental or situational pressure. This response is neither specifically eustress nor distress, but instead, a brief period where the brain and body react and then return to baseline. For example, when a car backfires, the loud bang may startle your dog; however, after a second or two, your dog normalizes and is not uncomfortable. 

How Positive Stress Becomes Negative Stress 

Even activities that spark happiness in your pup can slide into negative stress. Tipping the stress scale comes from a need for more management. If a puppy playdate lasts too long, the dogs may become tired and fight. The disagreement between friends may be over something they wouldn't fight about normally. However, because the positive stress wasn't managed — i.e., the playdate didn't end at an ideal time to keep it positive — it slid into negative stress. 

Direct Causes of Stress in Dogs

We can't shelter our dogs from stress. Certain stress levels can actually build essential life skills like resilience. Still, we can learn to keep an eye out for triggers and develop positive response mechanisms.

Needs Not Being Met

Dogs, like humans, have unique needs, and one universal requirement is the freedom to exhibit natural behavior. Micromanaging their activities limits their ability to make natural choices. 

Your dog needs physical activity, mental stimulation, enrichment, proper sleep conditions, one-on-one time, and independent time daily. An active dog without mental and physical outlets may experience negative stress, leading to reactivity, aggression, destructive behavior, and hyperactivity.

Environmental Changes

Changes around your dog that are out of their control are all environmental stressors that can affect your pup. Examples may include meeting new people, introducing new pets, moving to a new home, construction, or a new routine. 

Social Interactions

A lack of social exposure, changes in a housemate's behavior or condition, or a traumatic experience with another animal or person can significantly affect your pet’s stress level. They can also experience a slide into negative stress from inadequate exposure or traumatic exposure during their critical social period or social maturation-driven changes.

Medical Conditions 

Developing a solid relationship with your dog's veterinarian is critical to recognizing and promptly treating changes in your dog's body, such as inflammation, discomfort, and cognitive dysfunction. Discomfort in the brain or body can lead to chronic physical problems and distress. 

Catching Stress 

Did you know your dog can "catch" stress from humans experiencing higher levels? High-conflict homes and dog owners with depression, anxiety, or phobias can impact these beautiful beings that we emotionally entwine with. 

Their deep connection and bonding abilities with us make them such excellent companions. At the same time, that ability for that deep connection makes them susceptible to mental and physical changes based on our own psychological and physical fluctuations. 

Genetics, Epigenetics, and Predispositions to Stress

Like us, dogs are a product of their environment and genetics; this means that as much as we try to control their upbringing and environment, we can only control part of the actual outcome. Some individuals have developmental predispositions, meaning they are more prone to developing distress than others. 

Genetics involves DNA — the blueprint of your dog, inside and out. Epigenetics consists of an individual's behavior and interactions with their environment that change how a gene is expressed — a different iteration of your dog's blueprint. Stress levels in our canine companions are affected by all of these factors. 

Common Signs of Stress in Dogs

When a dog's stress level increases acutely or gradually, there are signs you can watch for. Signs are observable changes in behavior or the physical state of the body. Early and less frequent signs can indicate mild stressors being present. A chronic display of stress signs that are more frequent can suggest that the dog is in distress and that a disorder or disease may be present. 

Let's look at specific observable changes that can help you spot negative stress and take action to ward off more severe brewing problems.

Physical Signs

Changes in body posture may include cowering, trembling, ears back or pinned, satelliting the ears, hypervigilance, whale eye, panting or excessive salivation, pacing or restlessness, diarrhea, and vomiting. 

Behavioral and Emotional Signs

Hiding or avoidance, destructive behaviors, inappropriate urination or defecation, changes in appetite, aggression, reactivity, excessive vocalization (whining, barking, or growling), changes in sleep patterns, excessive grooming, and displacement aggression.

Cognitive Signs

Difficulty learning new things. Decreased ability to focus and difficulty following well-known cues.

Physiological (Internal) Effects of Stress

While we can observe body and behavioral changes in our stressed sidekicks, we can't necessarily observe what happens inside a dog's body as their stress level increases. To better understand the effects physiologically, we can follow the pathway of hormones released and the body's response to those hormones in both positive and negative stress. 

According to Dr. Amy Learn, DAVCB, positive and negative stress pathways are fundamentally the same. The difference in the brain and body of the dog lies in how long a stress cycle lasts or how long it takes to get back to baseline — also known as allostasis. 

Dr. Learn breaks down the two main stress response pathways below into the sympathetic adrenomedullary system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

Sympathetic Adrenomedullary System (SAM)

The SAM involves the activation of epinephrine (also called adrenaline) to prepare the body within seconds for a flight or fight response. Epinephrine can significantly affect the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose. The main result of these effects is to provide energy and prepare the body so that an individual can escape a threat and dampen pain to overlook a minor injury to survive.

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA)

The HPA is the other, more slowly acting response that involves messages sent from the hypothalamus to activate the anterior pituitary and adrenal gland to release glucocorticoids like cortisol. 

Cortisol is a stress hormone with many other bodily functions, including energy metabolism, physiological activity, vigilance, memory, emotion, and cognition. Prolonged or dysfunctional stress response has such dramatic negative impacts on the whole animal.

Long-Term Impacts of Stress

While short-term impacts of stress can be more easily managed and alleviated by altering the environment or meeting an unmet need, chronic stress can lead to serious long-term consequences that are less simple to manage. 

Chronic stress can lead to health problems, such as immune system suppression, digestive issues, and cardiovascular problems, and a dog's mental health can continue to decline with unmanaged stress. 

Stress-Related Health Issues

Behavioral Biologists have connected stress to skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, which causes chronic itching, having both psychological and physical consequences. Scientists have also observed hair loss (patchiness) and dulling of the skin and coat in dogs experiencing short-term and long-term stress. Dogs can also begin self-mutilating or causing lick granulomas with chronic stress affecting the skin. 

Some health conditions that have been observed in dogs suffering from chronic stress include:

  • Stress Colitis: a gastrointestinal response to stress that leads to diarrhea, bloody stools, and digestive problems
  • Cushing's Disease: an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which can also lead to severe kidney issues and diabetes.
  • Cardiovascular dysfunction can result from chronic exposure to stress or repeated exposure to significant stressors
  • Decreased immune function
  • Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
  • Gut imbalances: poor nutrient absorption, diarrhea, indigestion, and discomfort from an overproduction of gas.
  • Infertility
  • Increased inflammation
  • Decreased pain tolerance
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Fatigue

How to Prevent and Manage Stress in Dogs

Not all types of stress are preventable. While you may be able to avoid some stressful situations or triggering environments for your dog, you won't always be able to predict or control whether there will be other people, loud noises, or other dogs everywhere you go.

While we cannot control everything, there are measures you can take to reduce unnecessary stress, such as providing for an individual dog's daily needs and providing a safe and comfortable living environment. If you know that a potentially stressful situation is coming up, you can also proactively give your dog a calming supplement to help take the edge off.

Here are six ways to help prevent unnecessary stress in your dog:

  1. Ensure your pup is getting adequate daily exercise and involve their brain. For example, during your favorite game of fetch, run them through various known cues before throwing the ball and randomize your cues to keep their thinking brain engaged. 
  2. Allow your dog to be a dog - let them stop and sniff the neighborhood message station - AKA the fire hydrant every dog pees on, and let them roll in the grass whether they just had a bath or not. 
  3. Give your pup adequate one-on-one time. Domestic dogs are bred for companionship; without sufficient daily one-on-one time, they can act out of frustration. 
  4. Provide enrichment at least once daily where they make choices and have positive outcomes, such as rifling through a snuffle mat to seek out breakfast. 
  5. Help your pup be confidently independent to avoid separation-related problems by giving them adequate alone time once a day. Time this around a rest period to help encourage calmness when alone and provide them access to enrichment to keep it a positive experience, such as a frozen Kong or puzzle toy. 
  6. Stick to a routine. Dogs thrive in predictable (but not overly militantly predictable) environments where they can anticipate the next fun thing that will happen in their day and settle into relaxation, knowing when it's time to do so. 

Seeking Professional Help for a Stressed Dog

Don't hesitate to reach out to professionals who work day in and day out with stress-related problems in dogs to help you recognize, prevent, and treat stress. 

If you notice some of the mentioned signs developing in your dog, contact a behavior professional for guidance. They can implement a behavior modification program to help shift feelings attached to stressful triggers. Behavior professionals can coach you through relaxation techniques and determine whether adding team members may be needed to give your dog the best stress care possible. 

A behavior consultant or even an accredited dog trainer can work with your veterinarian to layer in supplements, medications, and a physical exam for possible discomfort points. You or your veterinarian can also work directly with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist- an expert in the canine behavior space. 

Positive stress, negative stress, eustress, and distress all play a role in the mental and physical balance of your pup's well-being. As pet parents, recognizing and responding to your dog’s anxiety empathetically can help your dog feel comfortable and secure in their most important relationship — with you, their guardian. 

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