Helping Pets Navigate Stressful Events
By Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPDT-KA
Stress happens! Whether it is something planned, such as a home improvement project, or something beyond our control, such as this past winter that just didn’t want to end, we and our pets deal with stressful events often on a daily basis. Stress is necessary to prime living creatures to deal with challenging situations, but chronic stress can have a long-term negative impact on the physical and mental health of us and our pets. The following are some basic steps you can take to help minimize the effects of stressful events on your beloved pets. You may even want to practice some of these techniques on yourself and your human loved ones!
1) As much as possible, maintain the household routine.
Everyone takes comfort in a predictable environment, including pets. If there is a lot of chaos (e.g. workmen and repairs), attempt to isolate the pet from the confusion if at all possible or attempt to mitigate the situation by providing comfort items such as familiar bedding, pieces of clothing, toys, or a radio/TV for background white noise. Providing comfort items will also help if for some reason you have to board your pet while trying to become reestablished.
2) Set aside a specific playtime or interaction time with your pet
When the household has a lull, usually in the evenings after work and dinner for most people, take 10 to 15 minutes to interact directly with your pet. This could be something active like playing ball or going for a walk or something more peaceful like gentle grooming or massage.
3) Dogs are pack animals and will tend to seek support and active interaction with family members.
Be careful NOT to reinforce anxious behavior by rewarding attention seeking. Reward the dog with verbal praise and/or small treats when the dog is quiet and settled--NOT when it is anxious and pacing. People attempt to reassure their dogs by talking to them as they become more and more anxiety driven (i.e. pacing, drooling, circling, vocalizing, hyperactive). The best bet is to model calm, relaxed, quiet, steady behavior and reward your dog ONLY when it mirrors your body relaxation cues. This is good practice for both owner and pet! Think “doggie meditation.”
4) Unlike dogs, cats react to stress by withdrawing
People, being primates, want to “tend and befriend” and then wonder why their cat bites them as they try to pull it out from under the bed! Do not force your cat to do anything. Provide it with hiding areas (a partially opened closet or under a bed are favored spots), but even something like a nicely padded large cardboard box or paper grocery bag will do in a pinch. Reward ANY attempts by your cat to socialize. Find a highly favored treat (e.g. smoked salmon or some other delicacy) that is given to the cat ONLY when it socializes or makes an attempt to be bold and brave. Be patient. Parallel activities may also help. If your cat won’t readily come and visit in the evening, go and read a book or fold laundry for 15 minutes in the area to which the cat has withdrawn. Reward ANY attempt by your cat to interact with you.
5) Animals are very scent oriented
There are dog- and cat-appeasing pheromones available, which appear to reduce stress and have a calming effect in some situations. The dog product is called DAP (dog-appeasing pheromone), and the cat product is called Feliway (cat-appeasing pheromone). Using these products in the environment on a daily basis certainly will not hurt and may well help. If you have trouble obtaining these products, lavender oil is more commonly available and has been shown to reduce anxiety during car rides in dogs. It may well be worth trying in an attempt to minimize stress and has the added bonus of a documented calming effect in people, too!
6) Distraction works for pets just like it does for people
Food puzzles provide a way to provide some additional mental interaction to dogs and cats. You can purchase food puzzles (Kongs are the best known product) or you can make your own. With cats, taking a plastic soda bottle with a screw-on cap, cutting a few small holes in it, and filling it with a half cup of dry cat food will provide entertainment for quite some time. Make sure the cap is on tight and that the plastic is tough enough that the cat can’t chew through it. Since dogs are such good chewers, avoid flimsy toys that they could ingest. Instead offer rawhide chews or pig ears. Make your own frozen treat using a large bowl, filling it with bouillon water and bits of meat, freezing and them dumping it out in an area where your dog can happily make a mess!
By following these basic, easy steps you can help to minimize the effects of stress on your pets and your family.
Additional fun reading
Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping-Now Revised and Updated. Macmillan, 2004.