Stress is inescapable. Sometimes, it's even necessary. But what could our pampered pups possibly have to worry about? And how do you spot a dog in distress? 🤔 Find out now.
Stress in dogs: Good vs bad, acute vs chronic
Stress is a "feeling of emotional or physical tension" caused by an external trigger (a stressor) that is considered a threat.
Unfortunately, some stressors are unavoidable. Fortunately, stress is not always bad!
It triggers the fight or flight response, which can be life-saving. And it's part and parcel of a dog's development.
For example, your young pup may be scared the first few times you go for a neighbourhood walk. Nevertheless, Fifi overcomes her initial apprehension, enjoys the walk, and learns appropriate behaviour through the socialisation process.
This "normal" or moderate type of stress is called eustress—it's the good kind. But there's also distress, where stressors are so severe, repetitive, or excessive that they cause mental strain.
Back to Fifi. Let's say she gets tackled by an overly playful dog (double her size) every time you go for a walk—and she gets hurt. Instead of learning from the experience, Fifi may develop irrational fears (phobia) or anxiety.
Distress is negative. It can go from a one-time, temporary, or momentary experience (acute) to a chronic condition with a long list of health repercussions!
Effects of stress on canine health
Aside from unpleasant feelings of unease, the body responds to stress by releasing hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, and glucose so that enough energy is available to respond to the stressor.
As you can imagine, being in a state of heightened stimulation affects overall well-being. It weakens the immune system, making doggos prone to illness.
It also raises blood pressure, induces skin conditions, and contributes to poor heart, tummy, and respiratory health. In the worst-case scenario, excessive stress can shorten lifespan. (Noooooo! 😭)
Common dog stressors
So, what causes stress in the modern hound's cushy life?
Unfortunately, anything and everything can stress a dog out—even boredom. The most common triggers include:
- Separation anxiety. Some dogs become overly attached to their humans, so that time apart is nothing short of torture. Ironically, maladaptive behaviours related to separation anxiety are among the top reasons for doggy abandonment. 😟
- Changes in routine. Canines are creatures of habit. Any changes to the expected can cause a barrage of stress.
- Environmental stimuli. Anything can be an unwelcome happening or event: Fireworks, thunder, hat-wearing men, the gentle hum of a washing machine, or the harmless ding of a toaster. Loud sounds and strangers rank high.
- Punishment-based training. Shouting, spanking, shock collars, and other punitive forms of obedience training upsets dogs and can cause stress.
- Your stress levels. Studies found that dogs can sense your nervousness—and then start stressing, too. It's kind of like emotional contagion.
Stress signs in dogs
The signs of stress in dogs fall into three categories comparable to how stress manifests in humans.
- Dilated pupils
- Exaggerated yawning
- Tense and tight muscles
- Low, crouched body posture
- Pulled back ears
- Vocalisation like barking, howling, whining, or growling
💡 It's worth learning a thing or two about doggy body language. That way, you'll have a better understanding of your puppy's state of mind.
- Increased elimination (think potty accidents)
- Increased anal sac expression
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Slow-healing wounds
- Extreme shedding
- Destructive behaviour
- Loss/gain in appetite
- Reduced/increased sleeping
- Shaking it off as though fresh from the bath
- Self-soothing and obsessive-compulsive behaviours like over-the-top licking or circling the same spot
- Panting, excessive drooling
- Restlessness, frantic behaviour, hypervigilance
- Escape attempts
- Learned helplessness
How to prevent chronic stress & anxiety in dogs
There are a few ways you can minimise stress.
- Find and eliminate the trigger. Diagnose underlying medical conditions. Fix your environment. Fight boredom with mental and physical stimulation. Lower your stress levels.
- Habituation. This is when you frequently expose your pup to a stressor, such as during socialisation. In some cases, the dog adjusts to the trigger over time. (Discuss with your vet or a behaviourist first!)
- Create a safe space. Pups should have a crate. Doggies also benefit from soothing (and comfortable 😊) accessories like the Grubby Paw Throw Blanket for a calming resting spot around the house.
Fears are a reality of life. So is the fact that no dog can avoid all stressors all the time. The best you can do is prevent undue stress early.
✔️ Ensure puppies are adequately socialised.
✔️ Widen their horizons with varied experiences.
✔️ Be observant; spot signs of stress ASAP so you can address them before they become a long-term problem.
Having said that, if your pet suffers from severe or worsening stress and anxiety, please consult your vet for appropriate guidance.