Modern life is full of daily stresses and strains for us humans: long hours at work, deadlines, frenetic schedules, the car breaking down… etc. Compared to us, you would be forgiven for thinking that a pet’s life is anything but stressful, but unfortunately in a lot of cases you would be wrong.
Whilst occasional stress is natural, prolonged exposure to stress can weaken the immune system and lead to long-term health problems, both for you and your pet. Learning to look out for your pet’s stress triggers and symptoms and applying some simple tips and tricks to help your pet cope with stress will be hugely beneficial for both of you.
What causes stress for pets?
Major life events such as moving house, new people moving in at home (e.g. a new partner) or the arrival of a new baby are just as anxiety-inducing for your pet as they can be for you. However, more everyday occurrences such as car journeys, going to the vet, stays in the cattery or kennels, and loud, sudden noises such as the vacuum cleaner or children playing can also be frightening for your furry friend. Most cats and dogs thrive on human contact, so if you are out of the home for long periods they can get lonely and this also causes anxiety.
Cats and dogs are highly territorial, so any threat to their personal space is likely to prompt a stress response. Cats in particular can be upset by others invading their territory, especially if outsiders try to gain access to your house through the cat flap. Dogs can easily be frightened if they meet an aggressive animal when you are out for a walk.
How can I tell if my pet is suffering from stress?
- Body signals such as pinned back ears, low tail, leaning backwards
- Lip and nose licking
- ‘Stress yawning’ (done with more intensity and more frequency than a normal yawn)
- ‘Shaking-off’ (dogs will often shake themselves after they experience something unpleasant, in the same way that they do after a swim)
- Excessive shedding
- Lots of whining or ‘crying’
- Lower appetite, particularly in dogs that are usually good eaters
- Toileting accidents indoors in a previously reliably house-trained pet
- Avoidance: If your dog is avoiding interacting with you or other dogs it could be because they are unhappy. Don’t force interaction if the dog is turning its head away, showing the whites of its eyes or cowering, as the other option can be aggression.
Cats display similar symptoms to dogs, with the addition of excessive grooming, sometimes to the point where they start to lose some of their fur. An outdoor cat may also start staying inside a lot more.
Not all dogs and cats will display all of these symptoms. Think about your pet’s normal behaviour and also consider the context, as normal behaviour for your pet may not be normal for others – it is up to you to decide whether their behaviour merits further action.
How can I help my anxious pet?
It may be impossible to completely protect your pet from stress, but there are a few easy ways to make life calmer for them.
- Provide your pet with as much routine and stability as you can, along with plenty of love and reassurance.
- Settle your cat using Feliway® and Felifriend®. The diffusers and sprays add comforting pheromones to your cat’s environment, to help it to feel calmer.
- A similar product for dogs, Adaptil, helps to reassure dogs in stressful situations. Adaptil is available as a diffuser or in a collar.
- Make your dog feel safe on walks by avoiding aggressive dogs and any other stress triggers such as loud machinery. If your dog is the aggressive one, pay attention to what triggers the aggressive outbursts. Avoid these things in the short term if you can and in the long term consider investing in some dog training to help the dog to cope better.
- Give cats a safe, quiet place to hide away from any stress-triggers in the home.
- Consider fitting a lockable cat flap, a microchip sensor cat flap or a magnetic cat flap so that other cats can’t gain access to your home.
- If there are serious territorial conflicts between your cat and a neighbour’s animal, consider asking the neighbour to only let their cat out at certain times of day, and only allow your cat out when the neighbour’s cat is indoors.
- Your vet may also recommend foods or supplements to help your dog or cat feel more calm.
- Do consult your vet if you are concerned about your pet’s behaviour, as there may also be underlying medical conditions causing them to behave this way.