What are Chronic Stress?
My dog is stressed? What does that mean? Have you ever asked yourself these questions? Have you ever wondered how a such a pampered pet can possibly have stress in his life? The answer to those questions is a resounding yes. Our family pets, though totally pampered, can experience stress which can be both transient and chronic. This chronic stress is not only demonstrated in behaviors which are irritating and inconvenient but also in ways you don’t see. And, it’s the self-mutilating and unseen systemic changes which are the most dangerous for your family pet.
Chronic stress in dogs can be defined as behaviors exhibited by your family pet and ongoing systemic changes in response to fears or phobias in his environment.
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Symptoms of Chronic Stress in Dogs
Stress symptoms in dogs can take on a variety of looks and sounds. Some are due to anxieties and fears, some are inherited or breed related and still, others are based on unfamiliar circumstances. Here are some symptoms you might see in your pet:
- Licking of lip or nose
- Appetite changes, usually decreased or absent
- Tail position, lowered or tucked
- Ear position, pulled back or pinned back
- Body posture, cowering, crouched or hiding (signs of timidity)
- Trembling or shaking
- Increased whining, barking or howling
There are several types of stress or anxiety in dogs. Here some of the categories into which the most common stressors fall:
- Separation anxiety - Can occur with any breed, gender or age and involves the canine being separated from family members with whom they have strongly bonded
- Social anxiety - Those canines suffering from this type generally are those who were not exposed to human contact very much, if at all, during their formative years
- Noise anxiety - This type is pretty common in most dogs and can occur with loud noises (thunder, loud engine backfiring, dropping of heavy objects), changes in barometric pressures along with the lightning and thunder from a storm has sent many a family pet into hiding
- Post-traumatic stress disorder - This type is caused by a traumatic experience (physical abuse, car accident, other fall or traumatic injury) in the life of your pet and is similar to that which occurs in humans; just like in humans, it can be treated successfully
Causes of Chronic Stress in Dogs
As you can see from the list of types noted above, stressors can come from many different directions. Here are some of the most common stressors (triggers) for your canine family member:
- Anything new - This includes new people, new toys, new places and anything new which has been added to your pet’s little world
- Loud noises - This can include fireworks, thunder claps, cars backfiring, sonic booms, and explosions which can startle and scare your pet
- Housing changes - Your pet’s familiar world can really be upset when you make changes in his accommodations. Moving his bed/sleeping area, changing to a different type of bedding for him (from sleeping on the floor with his special “blanket” to a nice basket-type bed with a cushy pillow for example). When you move from one house to another, this can really upset your pet’s world, too
- Household member changes - This can include that new baby, or the new puppy, or the loss of another nonhuman family member, even those house guests that you have over from time to time
- Household routine changes - This can include the loss of one of your children when they’re away at college, a new job schedule, holiday routine changes
- Training measures which are more punitive - This can include shock collars, hitting, loud expression when speaking to the dog
- Personal space invasion - This would be experienced when someone interrupts your canine’s nap to kiss, hug or otherwise forcibly restrain him
- Normal breed-related behaviors - This would include any herding, running, swimming, retrieving activities which are normal behaviors for your pet’s breed or species
- Separation from human family members - Most family pets will bond with one or more family members and will feel varying degrees of anxiety when separated from those family members
- Strained relationships within the household - Believe it or not, your pet will feel the animosity and friction which can exist in a household; it disrupts the peace of the environment and your family pet will feel it and have behavior responses to it
Diagnosis of Chronic Stress in Dogs
If you notice some of the unusual behaviors listed above, or if you notice any unusual behaviors in your family pet, you should get your veterinary professional involved as soon as possible. These behaviors could signal chronic stress or they could signal the deeper internal damage from chronic stress or other conditions which can threaten the health and well being of your canine family member. Your vet will need a complete history from you which includes:
- The behaviors noted, their severity and duration
- Living conditions of your pet - Where does he sleep, how often is he exercised, is he inside the house with family members or does he live outside the house, size of his kennel if kept outside, is he housed with other canines
- Dietary regimen - Type of food being fed, frequency, duration of feeding this food, type of snacks being offered and their frequency and duration of use
- Gender of the canine and whether the canine has been neutered or spayed
Your veterinary professional will do a physical examination and will likely do some blood tests, urinalysis and fecal testing. He will be looking for values of blood components, nutrient deficiencies and various enzyme levels in an attempt to rule out any systemic issues which can mirror some of the symptoms and clinical signs seen in your pet. If he suspects something deeper, he may also order some imaging modalities such as radiography (x-rays), CT scanning or MRI studies if the findings warrant such testing.
Treatment of Chronic Stress in Dogs
If your veterinary professional has determined that your family pet is suffering from stress-related issues, then an appropriate treatment plan will be developed and initiated. Additionally, if he finds that the chronic stress condition from which your canine is suffering has caused deeper internal systemic issues, the treatment plan will include various treatments for those conditions as well. Possible treatments for chronic stress:
- Could be as simple as incorporating a daily walk and exercise activity into the life of your canine family member
- The treatments could include dietary regimen changes
- You may need to make some changes in your pet’s living arrangements
- You may need to administer medications to reduce the anxiety of your pet
- Behavioral training may need to be incorporated into your daily routine
- It is possible that administration of supplements may be needed to improve the nutritional and metabolic imbalances in your canine’s system
Additionally, treatments for any systemic issues found will be based upon the systemic issue itself. It will be important to treat both the cause of the systemic problem as well as the systemic condition itself and, whether those treatments run concurrently, or if one needs to be treated before the other, will be determined by your veterinary professional.
Recovery of Chronic Stress in Dogs
Recovery from the ravages of chronic stress for your canine family member may be fairly easy or it may be more complicated. It all depends on the degree to which the stress levels have progressed and any systemic damage or complications it has caused. And, the end result may take months to achieve if there are systemic changes afoot as well. It is certainly safe to assume that any steps you can take to eliminate or reduce some of the stress triggers noted above will go a long way to at least beginning the healing process.