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Is Your Pet Stressed?

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In both humans and animals, stress can cause fear, anxiety, and restlessness. The psychological state of your pet is not unlike or unaffected by your own. In fact, studies show that household pets, such as cats, dogs, and birds, often take on our stress and are just as vulnerable to post-stress disorders after a traumatic experience. In addition to bearing our emotional burdens, animals too have their own stress and anxiety to cope with. Some stress-related behaviors appear more often; however, just as it is with humans, the causes, signs, and ways to manage stress vary for every animal.

As pet owners, this means that we should pay close attention when our pets start to behave out of character, because it usually means something needs to be addressed. Spot probably didn’t start chewing on the couch because it tastes good; Spot is most likely responding to a change in his environment or deviation from his normal routine, and he needs attention. If something seems “off,” you should check with your veterinarian. Sometimes, what might seem to be stress-related behavior in your pet may actually be a serious physical ailment that needs treatment.

“Owners often think they are overreacting, but in many instances, they help me catch something before it gets worse,” said Mike Fietz, DVM Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. “Kitty might be urinating on the couch because she hates your new girlfriend, but she also might have a urinary tract infection that needs treating, and it is accordingly important not to write symptoms off as trivial or ‘just stress.’”

Signs and causes of stress in pets

Stress is a normal, and even healthy, response for any animal if a situation grows unpleasant. But where do we draw the line between “normal stress” and “pathologic anxiety”? If the signs suggest your pet is feeling stressed, your best bet is to check with a vet. There are some measures you can take to help prevent stress, and other procedures that you can implement to respond to it.
Let’s take a look at some of the causes, signs, and ways to manage stress in pets. What are some causes? Of course, this list could go on indefinitely: 

  • Any change in normal routine: company visiting, a new baby or pet in the house, a change in the owner’s work schedule, etc.
  • Separation anxiety: worry and fear when removed from the owner's presence (this is one of the most frequent problems seen by vets).

How can you tell?

The array of symptoms of stress in pets is vast, and often contradictory. According to Fietz, “The manifestations of stress and anxiety may even be more varied than the causes.”

  • Minor cues such as pacing, panting, vocalizing.
  • Urinating and defecating inappropriately, despite being otherwise well housetrained.
  • Hunger strikes, or ravenous eating. 
  • “Clinginess," or just the opposite, detachment or hiding.
  • Destructive behavior, panic attacks 

Managing your pet’s stress

Stress and anxiety are handled differently depending on the source and symptoms. 

  • According to Fietz, it is almost always preferable to begin non-medically, trying to condition the pet's behavior through exposure and positive re-enforcement.  In more intense cases, people may even need to seek the help of trainers and behaviorists.
  • Sometimes legitimate anxiety can only be benefited by long-term medical management. According to Fietz, “These drugs can be safe and effective, but they are not magic pills, and are intended to be used in conjunction with appropriate training to help address the problem at its root.”

In most cases of behavioral disorders, however, vets and behaviorists are cautious to avoid the word "cured." This is particularly true when aggression is part of the mix, and a false sense of security might lead to injury. For the safety of those around these animals -- and particularly children -- caution is always warranted. Most of these animals retain a good degree of hypersensitivity to stress, and really benefit from owners that are not only understanding of the problem, but willing to work with them to maintain a healthy quality of life.  It's challenging, no doubt, but those challenges often yield bonds between owners and their pets that are uniquely powerful and rewarding. 

Tips for keeping your pet happy and emotionally healthy

  • Spend time with your pets. Allot 30 minutes of your day to spend with your cats, and even more to spend with your dogs.
  • Petting your dog or cat is a calming motional which may work to relieve your own stress, and at the same time, relieve the stress of your pet.
  • Emotions are transferred in a household. If there is a significant amount of stress in your home, your pet is going to feel it. Try to remain calm around your pets.
  • Walk your dogs daily. Try to switch up your routes to keep your pet occupied. Play with your cats. Boredom can lead to stress and anxiety.

Again, don’t be shy. If you notice something strange in your pet’s behavior, don’t hesitate to call your vet. 

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D. 
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