Stress in dogs, just like in us and other creatures, can lead to various health problems and can severely restrict their quality of life. What can trigger a stress reaction? How can you recognise a stressed dog? And the most important question, how can you help your darling? The following article is dedicated to all these questions.
What is stress or chronic stress?
Stress is a natural and sensible reaction to a threat or a stressful situation. In a small dose, stress is also completely normal. Our body, as well as that of our dogs, produces certain hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline) in a threatening situation, which enable enormous powers. This means that a stress reaction ensures that the body prepares for either flight or fight. Whether the dog reacts with flight or fight depends on the character, the experiences and much more.
Eustress and distress
A distinction is made between eustress and distress. Eustress is regarded as positive stress, which provides the necessary drive and motivation. It is a short-term tension to cope with a situation. Afterwards the body relaxes relatively quickly.
On the other hand, distress is perceived as negative because it occurs in situations that are overstraining and the dog feels helpless. Problems can no longer be solved rationally which leads to anxiety, irritability and exhaustion. These are often long-term or recurring stressors (stress triggers). As a result, the relaxation phases are missed out, which contributes to the fact that the stress hormones cannot be broken down.
Consequences of stress in dogs
As with us humans, however, constant stress can lead to physical and psychological illnesses in our pets. Over a certain time persistent stress is called chronic stress and can lead to the following health problems in our dogs:
- Skin problems
- Weight loss <> craving for food
- Occurrence of certain stereotypes (tail hunting, etc.)
- Gastro-intestinal problems
- Weakening of the immune system
- Behavioural problems
The dog has a stress memory, which leads to a stress reaction, although the stressor (trigger) is not at all or not yet or no longer present (veterinarian).
If the dog has the efforts to adapt or has given up the resistance, this can lead to so-called learned helplessness. In this state of exhaustion the dog no longer reacts to stimuli. Also thinking or even learning is impossible and leads to fears and depressions. This is often the result of aversive training methods.
But what actually happens in the body during stress?
As a reaction to a stress trigger, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline to put the body into a state of escape or combat readiness in the shortest possible time. Adrenaline sharpens the senses, provides energy and increases the willingness to act. The peak of the release is reached after about 10 minutes, whereas the decomposition can take up to 6 days. Stress hormones can be detected in blood and saliva.
If the level of the stress hormones is too high, the dogs often overreact or even show aggressive behaviour. If the level is too low, the dog has little or no energy and is unable to think purposefully. If our dogs are repeatedly exposed to stress stimuli or fear situations that they cannot escape, they can develop chronic stress. This can become a vicious circle. This is why it is so important for jumpy, insecure and stressed dogs to come down from their stress level and relax.
Enter the daily stress level in your pet profile to see correlations.
Possible triggers of a stress reaction in dogs
There are a variety of stress triggers among our beloved dogs. However, not each of the points listed below must lead to a stress reaction. Each animal is to be regarded as an individual and reacts differently to certain stimuli. Also regarding the strength of a stimulus, so from which stimulus level a dog reacts, is different. Among other things, the experiences from the puppyhood play a role here. Fact is however, the earlier the stress trigger is recognized, the better the stressed dog can be helped.
- Environmental factors: bright light, loud noises, moving house, changes within the family, stimulus satiation
- Problems with other animal roommates
- Stress transmission (for example, when you are stressed)
- Grief, separation anxiety
- Underload >< Overload
- High physical or mental strain ( dog sports)
- Deprivation of water/ food/ sleep
- Unsatisfied needs
- Diseases, pain
- and much more
The difference between anxiety and stress
Anxiety and stress are not the same thing, even if both are closely related. The more a dog is under stress, the more likely it is to classify strong, unknown or confusing stimuli as dangerous and develop anxiety.
Everyone knows the course of a stress reaction from their own experience. Blood pressure and pulse rate rise as soon as we get scared. More blood is pumped into the muscles to make the body ready to escape or fight. This means that less blood is available to the digestive organs and higher brain regions. Thinking and digestion have a lower priority at this moment.
Therefore, dogs under stress have a limited ability to learn and are often unable to accept rewards. Ideally, the body returns to its “normal” state as soon as the stimulus has disappeared. Whether or not a short scare actually turns into fear depends on several factors:
- experiences made so far
- inherited traits
- momentary condition
Signs of fear and stress in dogs
As you may know, our dogs express their emotions through body language and behaviour. There are many signs of fear, nervousness, stress and insecurity. However, every dog has its own individual way of expressing itself. Common signs can be:
- A lowered or retracted tail.
- Crouching posture
- Attached and pulled back ears
- Increased panting
- “Smile” (mouth gap pulled back)
- Things are destroyed
- Extensive licking
- Large pupils, red eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Dandruff formation
- And many more.
If you recognize signs of stress in your darling, try to make the situation more pleasant for him. Make sure that your dog feels comfortable during training and in everyday life.
How you can support the stress reduction
- Exercise gives the body the opportunity to break down stress hormones faster. Care should be taken not to exhaust the dog too much (especially not with ball games). A longer, leisurely walk is more advisable.
- Sniffing and searching games: Sniffing is self-rewarding for our dogs, because it strengthens their self-esteem and their confidence in themselves. Therefore it is particularly suitable for insecure and fearful dogs. Furthermore, sniffing demonstrably lowers the heart rate and thus has a calming effect on the body of our darlings.
- Chewing: Chewing has a calming effect and makes many dogs happy. Chewing releases endorphins, which can stimulate the mood. In addition, chewing, nibbling and licking helps to reduce stress hormones.
- Adequate sleep: Our dogs need up to 18 hours of sleep a day, because during this time the events of the day are processed. Therefore, sufficient rest is very important, especially for stressed dogs.
- Cuddling: Cuddling is really healthy and who doesn’t like cuddling? It promotes the health of human and dog. Social interactions cause the hormone oxytocin to be released, which is also known as the happiness or love hormone. Please make sure that your furry friend really wants physical contact.
- Nerve food, such as B- vitamins, L-tryptophane, etc.
- Essential oils, such as lavender, chamomile, etc.
- Relaxation music
- Certain colours and odours
- A cosy retreat
- Herbs, such as lemon balm, valerian, etc.
- And many more.
A dog trainer can also help you to find stress triggers and help your pet to calm down again.
You see, chronic stress in dogs (of course also in other animals and humans) can lead to a variety of physical and psychological problems. Observe your dog to notice stress in time. Fortunately, we can actively help our pets and in this way our stress level is also reduced.