Recognizing Stress in Dogs and Cats

June 16, 2014

By Linda Cole

A few summers ago, a young raccoon in the neighborhood apparently decided my dogs were interesting to watch. I don’t know if he was lonely or thought the dogs were funny looking, but he’d show up almost every day when they were outside in their pen. He’d climb one of the trees overlooking the pen to sit and watch them. The dogs knew he was in the tree, and it frustrated them to no end. The raccoon forced us to change our nighttime routine to keep the dogs from waking up the neighborhood with their excited barking. He eventually moved on, but his presence definitely stressed out the dogs. We don’t always stop to consider how anxiety in a dog or cat’s life affects them, or what even causes it, but too much stress can lead to health issues and behavior problems.

What Causes Stress for Pets?

Shelter animals deal with stress on a daily basis. They live in a noisy environment with no way to escape or hide. Sensitive pets have a hard time dealing with shelter life. Stray and lost pets have to contend with a host of issues that can put their health at risk. Stress in dogs and cats is caused by environmental, emotional or physical issues.

Environmental stress is caused by moving to a new home, a change in routine, holidays, loss of a family member (human or animal), other pets, trips to the vet and other issues dealing with their environment.

Emotional stress comes from boredom, being left home alone, getting overly excited, anticipation, too much active play, fear, loss of a family member, rivalries or jealousy, being yelled at, a fear of storms, lack of confidence, inconsistent training, lack of mental stimulation, strange smells or a lack of exercise. Some dogs get stressed during training classes, and some cats who are no longer allowed to roam outside can feel frustrated and anxious by the change.

Physical stress could be due to extreme weather, a medical condition, lack of a high quality diet, trauma, recovering from surgery, or parasites like fleas and worms.

Signs of Stress

Shedding, pulling out their fur, panting, diarrhea, vomiting, bloat, excessive vocalizing or whining, growling, pacing, aggression, excessive licking or chewing, digging, sweaty paws, foamy drool, reddish eyes, leash biting, dilated pupils, huge round eyes, tense muscles, cowering, tucked tail, excessive tail wagging, shaking, loss of appetite, not using the litter box, raised hackles, lip licking and yawning can all be stress related behaviors.

Medical conditions, fear, shyness and phobias may also indicate stress in a dog or cat. The key to helping a pet deal with stress is to figure out what is causing him to be anxious. A vet checkup can rule out medical issues, and you may need to call in a professional animal behaviorist to help you sort out environmental or emotional stress. Maintaining a regular routine, healthy exercise to stimulate the body and mind, and providing a quality diet may be all you need to reduce the stress in your pet’s life.

The body language of a dog tells you what’s on his mind. Cats may be harder to read, but most people can tell if their feline is upset or not feeling well. Stress may be more difficult to recognize if nothing has changed in your home or routine, and your pet is healthy and getting proper exercise. A cat may become stressed out watching a bird on the other side of the window; a dog might get frustrated when he can’t reach a pestering raccoon. Sometimes it’s a too loud TV or music, or an insistent child bothering a dog or cat who doesn’t feel like interacting with them.

We may not see any reason why a dog or cat should feel stressed, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling anxious. Our job as responsible owners is to be alert and aware of what’s going on in our pets’ lives so we can understand stress from their perspective.

Stress impacts dogs and cats in the same way it affects us, and pets can pick up on our stress. Most anxious moments won’t have a lasting or harmful impact, but an excessive amount or prolonged stress can weaken the immune system and lead to serious health or behavior issues. You can’t control all of the stress in your own life, nor can you prevent your pet from experiencing anxious moments. However, you can recognize signs that say your pet is feeling stressed out so you can help him relax. Like us, dogs and cats can benefit from a calming touch that soothes the body and soul.

Top photo by Gaia Metal Studio
Middle photo by carterse
Bottom photo by cooling84

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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