Unfortunately, stress is a feeling most of us are all too familiar with in daily life. But it is by no means unique to the human condition. In fact, as kindred mammals and close companions, the manifestation of stress is similar in both humans and pets, with the potential to make both us and them edgy, hyper, or irritable. While a certain level of stress is expected – and sometimes even necessary for development – severe and repeated exposure to stressors has the potential to impact a dog’s state of health, wellbeing, and behavior. This is why it’s essential to understand your pet’s stress triggers and responses in order to avoid acute stress and the development of chronic stress conditions.
Table of contents
- Definition of stress
- Acute and chronic stress
- Causes of acute and chronic stress in dogs
- How to manage stress in dogs
- Bottom line
- How can Ellevet’s CBD + CBDA help with stress?
Definition of stress
Most of us use the word daily to describe any number of situations, but what does stress really mean? Stress can be defined as any type of change that requires attention or action that provokes a physiological, behavioral, or psychological response. Therefore, any stimulus that provokes this kind of reaction can be considered a stressor.
That doesn’t mean any situation stressful situation should be avoided at all costs. The stress response both we and our dogs experience is an important function of evolution – one that has allowed each of our species to adapt and survive over the course of millennia. “Eustress” refers to stimulation or “positive stress” that motivates an individual to use energy to overcome a challenge and learn new capabilities. We can see examples of this kind of behavior in puppies during socialization when play fighting with each other. During this state of arousal, the pups are learning to cope with moderate and manageable amounts of stress while establishing social bonds and boundaries.
Ultimately, you can expect your dog to experience some level of stress as part of its development. There will inevitably be situations when you have to expose your pet to stressors out of necessity or for its own benefit, such as trips to the veterinarian or the kennel. These situations may place your dog temporarily in a state of “acute stress,” which, if managed appropriately, can help build its resilience over time.
The unwelcome neighbor of “eustress” is distress. While there can be considered a “peak performance level” of eustress that sharpens a dog’s focus and abilities, there comes a point when stressors become excessive and cause psychological strain.
Persistent or excessive stress levels can lead to a dog’s sympathetic nervous system becoming perpetually stimulated. This is where acute stress can lead to “chronic stress.”
According to The Whole Dog Journal: “a huge percentage of what is perceived as canine ‘misbehavior’ is actually a dog’s response to stress.” We’ll examine the difference between acute and chronic stress, its triggers and symptoms, and how to manage your dog’s health to mitigate the long-term health and behavior impacts.
Acute and chronic stress
According to the Dogs Trust UK: “The acute or immediate stress response places a dog into a state of biological preparedness. This optimizes the physical ability of the dog to respond appropriately to the challenge, with the aim of surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on genetic material.”
Signs of acute stress
The acute stress response prepares your dog for action. It provokes a physical response: releasing adrenaline and raising blood glucose levels that lead to a heightened sense of energy and awareness. Since most of a dog’s emotions are expressed through body language, this manifests in physical actions or vocalizations. Look out for:
- Dilated pupils
- Self-calming behaviors like nose licking and yawning
- Panting and salivation
- Wrinkled muzzle and bared teeth
- Pinned back or pricked ears
- Tensed body language
- Low, crouched posture
- Vocalization: barking, howling, whining, or growling
When a dog is exposed to persistent and excessive stressors, the sympathetic nervous system will be perpetually stimulated, resulting in chronic stress. The condition can lead to negative, maladaptive behavior and health outcomes. The sustained release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in response to stress can suppress the immune system, potentially leading to a variety of infectious diseases or long-term health conditions like cancer.
Signs of chronic stress
If your dog is suffering from chronic stress, the signs listed above will be familiar. However, the long-term effects of stress can open the door to more serious issues. Some of these signs can be contradictory in nature: chronic stress can cause your dog to either increase or decrease its appetite or lead to excessive or limited sleeping patterns. This means you’ll need to closely observe your dog for changes in behavior that could indicate an ongoing issue.
- Delayed wound healing
- Increased defecation/urination
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Elevated blood pressure
- Age-related cognitive dysfunction
- Aggression or agitation
- Destructive behavior
- Increase or decrease in appetite
- Excessive sleeping
- Reduced sleeping – less than 17 hours per day
- Excessive self-grooming or repeated spinning
- Escape attempts
- Obsessive-compulsive habits
- Learned helplessness
Causes of acute and chronic stress in dogs
There’s really no limit to what can potentially stress out your dog. Furthermore, some dogs are more predisposed to chronic stress than others. According to the Sydney Animal Behaviour Service: “Response to stress will vary between individuals and may be affected by breed, early experience, sex, age, health, and the pet’s behavioral profile.” Common stress triggers that can impact a dog’s well-being include:
Separation anxiety describes dogs that are overly attached or dependent on their owner and display distress and anxiety when separated from this person, often persisting until they are reunited. SA is one of the leading causes of stress and maladaptive behavior in dogs. According to research published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, symptoms of separation anxiety – namely stress – are some of the most common reasons owners get rid of their dogs.
Changes in routine and environment
Dogs thrive in predictability and routine. However, we know change is constant and life can throw up unexpected obstacles. This can include the disappearance of a family member, moving house, sudden and persistent loud noises (such as nearby construction work), or being kenneled can cause a stress response.
According to The Whole Dog Journal: “An aversive stimulus is defined as ‘an unpleasant stimulus that induces changes in behavior.’” For example, thunder, fireworks, or an unwelcome presence – if your dog doesn’t like other dogs or men, for example – can provoke a stress response. The proximity and intensity of aversive stimuli can impact the severity of the dog’s stress response.
Forced-based obedience training can actually enforce negative behavior patterns through stress. The use of punishment in training, such as shouting, hitting, or shock collars, can cause dogs to become stressed.
If a dog consistently has its basic needs neglected, such as exercise and stimulus, this can manifest in a stress response. What may look like “bad dog behavior” could actually be a dog’s attempt to communicate its needs.
Pain and illness are some of the most significant stressors. If you noticed a sudden and significant change in behavior, the first step is to rule out any medical conditions that may require attention. Since dogs can’t verbalize their needs, the stress signals above are the only methods for communicating pain (chronic or acute) or disease.
When looking for the source of a dog’s stress, the answer might be closer to home than we’d like to admit. “Emotional contagion” describes the phenomenon of mirrored emotional arousals states in a group, species, or even inter-species dynamic. Studies have revealed the was acute stress can be highly contagious between owner and pet. In 2019, a group of researchers determined an “interspecific synchronization in long-term stress levels” between humans and their dogs. The results show chronic stress levels between dog and human mirror each other over time. If you are suffering from stress, it’s very likely your dog is too. Mitigating your own stress levels will benefit both you and your dog.
How to manage stress in dogs
As much as we’d like to protect our pets, it’s unrealistic to imagine a dog’s life could be entirely free from stress. Instead, you can learn to manage and mitigate stressful situations and how your dog responds through a variety of methods.
Wherever possible, the first step is to remove the stressor. In some cases, this might mean identifying a medical condition, altering the environment, reducing owner stress, and ensuring the dog has all its essential needs fulfilled. However, some situations are beyond your control. For example, veterinary visits may be stressful for your dog, however, they are essential in maintaining its overall health. Therefore, the next step involves building resilience, so that the dog might be able to overcome acute stress and recover quickly to avoid the development of chronic stress.
In some cases, repeated exposure to a stressor may reduce your dog’s anxiety over time. According to the Dogs Trust UK: “Habituation is a decrease in the behavioral response to a stimulus through repeated exposure. If a dog becomes habituated to a stimulus it is unlikely to trigger any physiological response and change in behavior.”
If your dog is scared of men, other dogs, certain noises, or the veterinary clinic, long-term and repeated exposure may help them get accustomed to the unknown and relieve anxiety. Introduce your dog to the stressor gradually and reinforce positive behavior until they become habituated. This is not a foolproof plan, however. If your dog is deeply stressed, repeated exposure could amplify the situation.
A safe space or source of comfort can help relieve a dog’s stress and offer them a feeling of some control. Try offering the dog a designated safe den where it can take shelter, such as a crate or a particular room. If a dog has the ability to control its exposure to the stressor, it can reduce the emotional impact and build resilience.
Remember, there’s only so much you can do alone. If you’re observing signs of persistent or extreme distress in your dog, consider taking them to your veterinarian. You can also seek advice from a canine behavioral consultant to learn methods to manage and mitigate your dog’s stress response.
Often the traits and behaviors we associate with a “bad dog” are actually the symptoms of a dog suffering from chronic or long-term stress. The condition impacts the endocrine system, weakens the immune system, and can ultimately manifest in maladaptive habits and anxious or aggressive behavior. A holistic approach to stress can help both you and your dog live your best lives.
How can Ellevet’s CBD + CBDA help with stress?
ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA chews, soft gels, and oils can offer support for dogs’ stress by helping their stress levels decrease and return to a normal state of balance. CBD + CBDA calms without sedating, which is key to allowing dogs to handle stressful situations. For daily stress, a twice-daily, weight-appropriate dose of ElleVet is extremely effective.
For acute or situational stress, ElleVet Calm and Comfort, when given 1.5 hours ahead of the trigger event, calms dogs significantly and allows them to handle high-stress situations such as thunderstorms, grooming appointments, and veterinary visits.
If you have questions about ElleVet or would like to discuss your dog’s particular needs, please reach out to us at [email protected]. We are here to help.