Stress Awareness Month: How Pet Parents and Their Animals Help Each Other With Stress




STRESS AND US


Animals have been sharing spaces with humans since the dawn of human existence. We now know that animal companionship reduces stress on a chemical level. It makes you wonder if early man, at its greatest time of fight or flight reaction, already intuitively knew that animals helped to calm them down! April is Stress Awareness Month. Here is what we know about animals and stress - how they help us and how we can help them.


From medieval Belgium to ancient Greece, animals have shared spaces with the ill. Animals have historically been known to have a positive effect on easing human suffering, as well as having mutually benefitting relationships between them. It is known that human interaction with animals decreases the stress-related hormone, cortisol, and can also lower blood pressure. Funded research studies conducted over the past 10 years are continuing to look into the difference that a variety of animal species make to decrease loneliness and boost moods, along with other positive effects. Recent studies have also found that neurodiverse children had better social interaction skills and less behavioral problems when they were given the opportunity to interact with animals in the classroom.


Presently, an estimated 68% of U.S. households have pets, and that number increased during the pandemic when stay-at-homers sought out four-legged companionship. In the US, more than 23 million households, almost 1 in 5, added a pet to their family during the pandemic, according to ASPCA. However, with the uncertainty of incomes and lifestyle changes, an added pet has also meant added stress. It is good to keep in mind that while having a pet has many benefits, it comes with great responsibility. If sharing a home with an animal isn’t your thing, consider walking a neighbor’s dog or volunteering at your local animal shelter! Helping others is also a great way to relieve stress and there are many animals at shelters who need the attention.


STRESS AND ANIMALS


Cats and Dogs both exhibit stress in a variety of ways. Getting to know your pet’s signals is a vital part of being a pet parent. Recognizing stress signals allows you to make changes in the environment to make your pet happier, and in the long run, healthier. PETMD states that there are three types of stress that dogs will experience: fears, phobias, and anxiety. PETMD defines them as follows:

  • “Fear is an instinct in response to an external threat. Analyzing the situation helps you figure out if it’s a normal or inappropriate response. For example, fear aggression could be normal if there’s a true threat to your dog or their loved ones. In other cases, fear aggression is considered inappropriate if it’s directed at a person who is not showing any signs of being a threat to your dog. Remember that your dog may interpret the situation differently, and something that is not a threat to you may be to them.”

  • “Phobias are excessive fears to an external stimulus. The most common phobias in dogs are noise phobias (fireworks, loud noises, thunderstorms).”

  • “Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling or fear related to the anticipation of danger. For instance, separation anxiety occurs when a pet has abnormal reactions to being away from their owner, whether for short or long periods of time.”

There are many signs that show a dog is stressed. Pacing or shaking, whining or barking, yawning, drooling, licking, or shifting its weight while standing, or panting are all clear indicators. Excessive urinating, loss of bowel functions, or refusal to eat are additional symptoms of stress. Hiding or trying to escape are stress signals, too. Sometimes identifying stress from illness is not a simple matter, so consulting with your vet is always an important step in prolonged symptoms of any kind.


Once you are aware of your dog exhibiting stress, the first thing to do is remove it from the thing or environment that is stressing it. Give your dog a quiet place to reset. You can give your dog simple commands like “shake” and reward it with treats to distract it from its previous situation. Always make sure your pet has a place to go in your home where it can retreat and feel safe.


Cats are less obvious in how they exhibit stress. Their signals may be more subtle than a dog’s as it is a part of their survival instincts to not show pain or stress. Hiding more often or destructive behavior are signs of feline stress. Also frequent vocalization, licking, pacing, rubbing on furniture, or urinating outside of the litter box are also common signs. (See here for more symptoms.) As with dogs, you will want to determine what is your cat’s stressor and try to remove them from the cause. Other things to consider are keeping litter boxes clean, food and water dishes clean and in a secluded area. (See here for more solutions.)


For both cats and dogs, it is always recommended to speak to your vet about any unusual behavior in order to rule out an underlying health issue. In some instances your vet may prescribe a medication to help reduce symptoms. For cats, there are over the counter solutions such as Feliway, which mimics a mother cat’s pheromones and has proven to soothe distressed cats. There are also stress-reducing CBD products for cats and CBD products for dogs that can help, which you can find here at our Sit & Stay store!