As pet parents, we’re all vaguely aware that we should minimize the stress our pet kids experience. As a veterinarian, I think it’s important that we also comprehend the health risks of prolonged anxiety, too. The fact is, living in a fearful or anxious state for long periods of time can take a dramatic toll on the health of a companion animal.
Any time your pet feels endangered, whether the threat is real or imagined, the body prepares to defend itself by unleashing a torrent of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, that have far-reaching effects on the whole body. These hormones release energy, increasing respiration while inhibiting digestion, the immune system, growth, reproduction and even pain perception. These hormones also decrease blood flow to areas of the body that are necessary for movement. This is appropriate for survival in a real crisis, but when fear, anxiety or stress continues chronically, negative health effects are a real possibility. These effects could include fatigue, hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, skin disease, as well as metabolic and immune problems. You might be surprised to know that pets can manifest many of the same conditions that we do!
Chronic anxiety and stress can even cause permanent damage to the brain. We know that animals staying in shelter facilities are at increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, including upper respiratory tract infections, litterbox problems, hair loss and bladder inflammation. And that’s nothing compared to the extreme duress of prolonged fear experienced by dogs in puppy mills! We can see the affects of stress on dogs when they exhibit signs of stress colitis, an inflammatory GI condition that causes diarrhea - often seen after boarding, veterinary visits, or grooming. Stressed dogs suffering from separation anxiety can also be destructive, chewing carpet, baseboards, or scratching up doors. Dogs that are chronically stressed can lick themselves raw, creating skin conditions like lick granulomas.
Apart from the mental and physical distress, stress hormones also imprint any fearful situation firmly in your pet’s memory as something that was scary and life-threatening. These feelings can be recalled from something as seemingly innocuous as pinpricks from a vaccine needle, a person wearing a lab coat or the sight of nail clippers. Any memory of frightening situations can prove to be a powerful fear stimulus. When your companion animal encounters a similar sort of situation, the stress hormones are released and the fear cycle resumes all over again.
The effects of fear and anxiety can be profound and highly distressing. We need to recognize fear in our pets, do more to decrease their fear when possible, and prevent fear by associating potentially fearful situations with positive stimuli. As you can see, dogs and cats who demonstrate pathologic levels of fear or anxiety need our help, not only for their emotional well being, but their physical well being, too!
Be sure to watch this month’s episode of Pet Talk, where Dr. Sarah explains how you can reduce your pet kid’s stress before and during veterinary visits.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks