Understanding & Minimizing Stress In Boarding Pets
By Outstanding Pet Care Learning Center
Regardless of how nice the pet care facility environment may be, being in that environment can still be a stressful experience for many pets. Let’s look at the physiological changes that occur in the body experiencing stress, as well as environmental factors.
What is Stress?
We’ve all felt stress and seen animals that are stressed: the dog that hides under the table during a thunderstorm or another that’s afraid to be touched. Stress is part of life for all creatures. There’s good stress and bad stress. Stress is just a perception that something is about to change. It may occur because of hunger, fear, noise, a change of environment, or pain.
Good stress (also called eustress) causes a change in behavior or a change of environment to eliminate the precipitating factor. Bad stress (or distress) occurs long-term, when no changes are made to help manage or remove it. It may also result from a situation that cannot be changed (such as a lodging stay).
What Happens to the Body?
When a perception that something is about to happen reaches the brain, several chemical reactions occur. Since stress is based on what we think will happen, it can occur even in reality, the situation may be perfectly acceptable. This is why pets in the pet care facility can become upset: the environment is safe, but they’re not sure what may happen next.
Once the brain perceives a stressful situation, the pituitary gland, a tiny gland deep in the brain, releases a hormone called ACTH. The pituitary gland is so close to the brain that it picks up the signal and releases the ACTH into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, it circulates through the body to the adrenal glands. All mammals have two adrenals glands: one on each side of the body, near the kidneys. These glands are larger than the pituitary—about an inch long.
The adrenal glands also secrete hormones and natural cortisone. Combined, these chemicals are called steroids. Steroids go out to all cells of the body with the message, “Get ready! Something’s about to happen!”
Steroids released by the adrenal glands influence every system of the body. For instance:
- Glucose is released from the liver for energy.
- Amino acids are released to supply the cells needed for tissue repair.
- Steroids also help stabilize cell membranes to help resist damage and tearing.
- The kidneys’ function slows and they retain more water. This increases blood pressure.
- The heart beats faster.
- Breathing changes, usually becoming more rapid and shallower.
- The immune system shuts down, and white cells that fight infection are not released.
Short–term, these changes do not affect the body. Once the stressful situation has passed, the body goes back to its original state, and the excess hormones and steroids are eliminated by the kidneys. A state of homeostasis is resumed.
Hormones enable the body to deal with short-term stress, but at a cost to the various organs and body tissues. Long-term stress and high levels of steroids prevent the body from its daily routine of tissue repair and fighting off disease.
When stress goes on long–term, body parts such as muscle cells, connective tissue (skin, and ligaments and tendons in the joints), and the immune system begin to fail.
This is why older dogs with arthritis or hip dysplasia may not walk well for a few days after lodging. Once the immune system fails, environmental bacteria that normally wouldn’t cause illness may make a pet sick. This may be why some dogs get bronchitis or urinary infections, or why cats develop respiratory illnesses. It’s also a common cause of diarrhea.
Any pet that has an underlying physical illness, like cardiac or kidney disease, will most likely have progression of the disease. Some diseases that are hidden and haven’t shown symptoms may become apparent when a pet is under stress. These pets come into the facility “healthy” but may become ill during their stay.
Stages of Stress
- Alarm Reaction: the first stage in which the body reacts to the causative agent (the stressor). This is for a short time.
- Stage of Resistance: steroid levels increase, and the body is ready to flee or fight.
- State of Exhaustion: long–term stress results of the steroids begins to negatively affect the body tissues. The immune system is completely shut down.
All body functions start to fail, and death is the ultimate result.
Just like people, all animals are different. What may cause stress for one person or pet may not for another. Pets taken to a pet care facility frequently may take longer to become stressed than a pet that has never visited a grooming shop, participated in daycare, or never been boarded.
Most pets are pattern-oriented. They know when to get up, when to go out, when their owners come home from work, and when they eat. The dog or cat coming into a boarding or daycare situation loses that pattern from home and needs to adapt to the new patterns of the facility. This change is stressful for some pets. They’re also sensitive to changes in odors and sounds, and different food and water.
Stress can be especially dangerous to older pets. Older dogs and cats often have compromised body functions. And while they do well in their own home environment, the stress reaction in the pet care facility may precipitate changes in their health. This isn’t because the facility environment is poor, but rather the pet’s reaction may make it sick. This is one reason good sanitation practices in the pet care facility are so important.
Identifying Stressed Pets
What do stressed pets do? If the dog or cat visits your facility often, you may notice abnormal behavior for that pet. If the pet is new, or rarely visits, you may notice things such as:
- Failure to eat or drink
- Failure to urinate or have bowel movements
- Tremors or shaking
- Sitting fearfully in the corner or back of the run
- Aggressiveness or being protective of their personal space
- Bloody urine
Parasites (both internal and external) are stressors that may affect a dog’s or cat’s health while staying at a pet care facility.
Physical stress factors are the easiest to change. This includes heat and cold, hunger, thirst, and the location in the facility. Make sure older pets that board have blankets and aren’t chilled. They often have less body fat than younger pets. Encourage eating by changing foods, offering special treats, or warming food up in the microwave to encourage eating. Older pets may not have good teeth, and dry food may be difficult for them to chew.
If a boarded pet is extremely shy or scared, move it to a quiet space in the facility away from loud dogs. Some pets are not used to other animals (especially cats afraid of dogs), and the exposure to barking and activity can be overwhelming.
Watch for problems and monitor the pets placed in the facility’s care. It is important to note which pets aren’t eating—not eating for the first day or two is normal, but shouldn’t be allowed to continue without consulting a veterinarian. Be sure all pets are urinating and having bowel movements. Dogs that refuse to eliminate inside should be taken for walks as they may become constipated or have a bowel impaction if they don’t eliminate regularly.
Follow facility procedures for cleaning and disinfecting. Since stressed pets are more susceptible to disease, it’s very important to keep the area sanitary. Bowls, runs, and litter boxes should be sanitized daily.
Keeping strange odors to a minimum will also help reduce stress. Use the fans or air filtering systems provided at your facility. Good ventilation can prevent respiratory disease in both dogs and cats.
Provide foods that are highly nutritious. Since many pets don’t eat well away from home, it’s critical they get enough nutrition from what they do eat. Use snacks and special treats as an incentive to eat, not as the entire diet. Foods like cheese, hot dogs, or baby food may give the pet enough of a taste of people food to encourage eating pet food. Some pets may be spoiled by their owners to only eat table food; ask owners what the regular diet of the pet is and his or her favorite snacks in case not eating becomes an issue.
A little TLC goes a long way. Here are other suggestions for reducing stress when providing pet care away from home:
- Give boarded pets clean, warm bedding.
- Give medications in a food ball or piece of cheese rather than forcing it down a pet’s throat (just be sure they swallow it).
- Get an older pet up for frequent, short walks to keep joints and backs limber.
- Take time for a head pat and a
- Call the pet by name.
- Provide a grocery bag or small box for the frightened cat to curl up in.
- Ensure extra heat or cooling for the geriatric section of the pet care facility.
- Offer a toy or dog biscuit.
- Make sure runs are dry before the pet enters.
- Give special attention for first-time visitors.
- Cuddle a cat or small dog.
- Provide water for grooming shop dogs.
- Warm up shampoo before the bath.
- Play soft music.
- Move an excessively noisy dog.
- Maintain a parasite-free environment.
- Wipe weepy or pus-filled eyes.
- Isolate aggressive dogs from the rest of the population.
- Provide nonslip mats for older dogs who have difficulty getting up.
- Follow a regular and on-time feeding schedule (dogs love patterns!).
- Have patience, even with difficult pets.
- Provide good ventilation and fresh air whenever possible.
- Give them your personal attention, not just a safe environment.
Caring for someone else’s pet is an honor and a great responsibility. Taking the time to be informed and properly equipped will help ensure excellent pet care and the highest level of customer satisfaction.
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