Stress Relief for your Pet Dog and Cat

By Dr. Claire. Staff Writer.

Over the course of the last decade, there’s been overwhelming evidence to support the idea that chronic stress plays a contributing role in a variety of medical conditions in humans. Accordingly, it may not surprise you that researchers have similarly determined that long-term stress can be a factor in the medical and compulsive disorders of companion animals. Feline lower urinary tract disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, obesity, gastric bloat, noise phobias and separation anxiety have all been found to have a chronic stress component in both dogs and cats, however, compared to humans, relatively little research has been published regarding stress and its effects on our fur kids. Some presume that the effects of stress on dogs are not much different than those on other non-human animals, but the research is proving these assumptions wrong.

In the mammalian world, dogs (and cats) are unique due to the bonds they share with humans. As dogs and cats have gradually changed over the millennia from living in natural settings to co-habitating with humans, one might expect that they would have fewer stressors than their outdoor ancestors. However, the evidence seems to contradict this assumption. Even though environmental stress is lower for today’s companion animals (i.e., less risk of being eaen, starvation, etc.), overall stress levels are actually higher. Furthermore, current sources of stress – such as boarding, veterinarian examinations, long-term confinement in a crate, boredom, habitual inactivity and even the sounds of modern life – are often unavoidable against which dogs and cats may not have well-developed defenses and are often unavoidable.

Stress has been eloquently described as “the sum of all nonspecific biological phenomena caused by adverse conditions or influences… include[ing] physical, chemical, and/or emotional factors to which an individual fails to make satisfactory adaption and that cause physiological tensions that may contribute to disease”.

In spite of how well you care for your dog, it is still likely that they will encounter daily stressors. While unavoidable, it is possible to minimize the effects through a combination of exercise, nutrition and holistic treatments.

Bodies manage stress through the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. In general, the response of the autonomic nervous system is very rapid and specific (fight or flight!), whereas the endocrine system adjusts more gradually and is broader in its effect.

In order to mount an adequate stress response, both the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system require nutrients that can only be obtained through dietary intake. For example, the endocrine messengers norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and cortisol are synthesized by the body. However, in order for the body to create these messengers, it needs to obtain the building blocks for the hormones all from dietary sources.  In the autonomic nervous system, signal transmission is made possible by electrical activity in the nerve cells. Fueling this activity requires dietary intake of sodium, calcium and potassium. Good nutrition is vital for normal nervous and endocrine system responses to stress.  In addition to feeding a high quality diet, feeding your pet a daily supplement is a simple way to ensure sufficient nutrients to maintain a healthy endocrine and nervous system, in turn helping to cope with any stress your pet encounters.

There are several options available to help your dog or cat manage stress. The easiest is daily exercise: simply by taking your dog for a daily walk you can lower stress for you and your dog!  Herbs like valerian, chamomile and supplements like inositol can help to soothe the jangled nerves of dogs. Pheromone diffusers and sprays are effective stress reducers for dogs (D.A.P). If the stress seems out of control and your pet is anxious or engaging in undesireable behaviors due to anxiety, talk with your veterinarians about anti-anxiety medications. If your budget is tight, you can do pet massage at home to help relieve tension. To develop a program of stress reduction that’s uniquely suited to your companion animal’s needs, consider enlisting the help of a holistic veterinarian.