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What are Stress-Related Illnesses?

Dogs, like people, are susceptible to stress and the illnesses that they can induce. Short-lived stressors can trigger bouts of vomiting, diarrhea, or changes in behavior and eating patterns, and chronic stress is known to increase the chances of developing serious and sometimes lifelong disorders, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Reducing your pet’s stress levels using stress relieving tools, training, and in some cases, medications, can not only improve their lives, but in many cases, may extend it.

Stress can be as much of a problem for canines as it can in humans, leading to digestive trouble, cardiac disease, and a suppressed immune response.

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Symptoms of Stress-Related Illnesses in Dogs

Signs that your pet is experiencing either acute or chronic stress can include: 

  • Cowering
  • Escape behaviors
  • Exaggerated yawning
  • Excessive appetite
  • Heavy panting
  • Heavy shedding
  • Ignoring commands
  • Licking nose or face (with no food present)
  • Lip tension
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pacing
  • Showing the whites of the eye
  • Skin trouble
  • Tail tucked under
  • Timidity
  • Trembling
  • Unusual or excessive vocalizations
  • Whites of the eye turning pink or red

Types

There are several types of disorders that can be initiated by stress, including:

  • Cardiovascular issues - Chronic stress causes the adrenal glands to release excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol, elevating the blood pressure and stressing the heart 
  • Eating disorders - Dogs, like humans, may react to stress by changing their eating habits and some dogs may overeat when subjected to stressful situations while others experience a lack of appetite; stress is also known to lower blood sugar which can occasionally trigger diabetes to develop
  • Gastrointestinal distress - One of the most common physical reactions to stress for canines is digestive upset; this can take the form of vomiting but is most often seen as diarrhea  
  • Immune system suppression - When an animal is exposed to prolonged stress the immune system is also suppressed by the cortisol, making them more susceptible to illness 
  • Slowed healing - Chronic stress has also been shown to slow tissue regeneration as well, lengthening the time it takes to for the body to heal from injuries or wounds

Causes of Stress-Related Illnesses in Dogs

When your dog experiences stress, its adrenal glands are prompted to release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. These hormones trigger the fight or flight reaction, which elicits several physical responses, including increased heart rate, reduced digestion, and sensory changes. Both acute and chronic stress can trigger these reactions, but repetitive or chronic stress is more likely to produce many of these disorders.

Diagnosis of Stress-Related Illnesses in Dogs

If you bring your dog into the clinic due to a stress-related disorder, the diagnosis process is multifaceted. The primary focus will be to determine the cause of the initial symptoms that the canine is experiencing. This is likely to start with a general physical examination that includes standard diagnostic tests such as a urinalysis, a complete blood count, and a biochemical profile. These tests will be able to help to determine several relevant factors; for instance, if there are any infections that have been caused by a weakened immune system or if there are any blood sugar or hormone imbalances, as well as possibly detecting increased levels of cortisol. 

The physical examination may also uncover any irregularities in the patient’s heart rhythm or respiration, triggering the examining veterinarian to run additional tests which could include an electrocardiogram to measure the flow of blood through the heart and x-ray or ultrasound imaging to better visualize the heart and lungs. If stress is suspected after the illness itself has been addressed, then the veterinarian will try and ascertain the cause of the stress. This will be done by requesting a complete behavioral history from you, typically including your pet’s gender and age as well as anything that you know about the breed of the canine. The dog’s daily diet will be evaluated and data regarding the circumstances prior to any episodes of anxiety or aggression will be discussed.

Treatment of Stress-Related Illnesses in Dogs

The initial treatment will depend largely on the illnesses that have developed and may include medications such as antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, or enzyme-inhibiting drugs, as well as changes in diet, and occasionally even surgical intervention. Once the illness has been addressed, then the source of the illness should also be concentrated on. The treatment plan to focus on the resolution of the stress will depend somewhat on the cause. If the stress is circumstantial, only occurring when the animal is left alone or is exposed to certain stimuli, behavioral conditioning and training methods, such as desensitization and obedience training, are frequently effective in reducing or eliminating the stress by making the circumstances seem commonplace instead of frightening or by focusing the patient’s attention on something that does not cause anxiety. Tools like pheromone products and thunder shirts may also help to reduce stress levels, and natural supplements such as St. John’s wort and chamomile may also be helpful, although a veterinary professional should be consulted before administering any herbal supplements as they may interact poorly with other medications or exacerbate other ongoing conditions. 

In rare cases, the stress level for the animal is so severe that prescription medication is required to calm them. Medications prescribed for psychological imbalances typically takes several weeks until their effectiveness is known, and the way that canines metabolize these drugs is generally very different from the way that a human metabolizes the drug. Many anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications have contraindications with certain antihistamines, pain medications, and even herbal treatments.

Recovery of Stress-Related Illnesses in Dogs

One of the best ways to avoid subjecting your pet to stress is to properly socialize them. This means introducing them to as many positive experiences as possible. This is best done during their primary socialization phase, between eight and twelve weeks of age. During this period in their lives, they are most easily able to accept and assimilate new experiences, and it is more challenging for a canine to accept new experiences after around fourteen weeks of age.

It is important to note that negative influences may also be particularly influential during this formative stage and can cause discomfort in certain situations throughout their lives. Even when this critical phase of your dog’s life is not handled properly, whether because circumstances prevented socialization, the owner was unaware of this need, or because the owner met their dog as an older puppy or adult, with a little compassion and patience most dogs can be socialized well into adulthood.