How to help pets avoid stress … naturally

March 14, 2010

Our bodies are built to heal, and given the right opportunities, they usually do.

Throughout the day, our systems confront a dizzying array of pathogens. If we are healthy, we have a good chance of fending off these disease-causing agents and repairing damaged tissue while carrying on complex chemical reactions. These normal, physiologic defense mechanisms keep our systems humming happily in a state of homeostasis.

Erelaxedcatsven though the length of our life depends on numerous variables and many fall outside of our control, we do have myriad opportunities to improve our quality of life if we tune in to health and tune out stress. The same principles of reducing stress to restore health apply to our animal companions.

Stress, whether physical, mental, or emotional, upsets both the mind and body. Individuals may resort to self-destructive behaviors or habits as maladaptive coping mechanisms. As a result of stress, pain increases, blood pressure goes up, and circulation to and from our organs diminishes, further compromising their ability to normalize function after illness. Physical problems become harder to treat and often turn chronic in the face of unrelenting stress.

These days, drug companies are more than ready, willing, and able to sell us medications for stress, but why not find ways to stop the problem at its source?

Let’s consider, for example, how stress affects our canine companions and what we can do about it.

Eyes

What’s stressful? Television (flashing lights), boredom (lack of visual stimulation), cigarette or other sources of smoke and pollution, blindness.

Natural ways to relieve eye stress: Shut off the TV, provide walks in nature and safe toys in a healthful and stimulating environment. Stop smoking and provide fresh air. For blind dogs, keep furniture in the same place so dogs learn the layout and cope better with blindness if medical treatment is not an option.

Ears

What’s stressful? Acoustic stress, such as TV (again), loud music, other dogs barking, humans arguing, loud children, video games, car alarms, home construction, slamming doors, etc. Thunderstorms leading to noise phobias.

Natural ways to relieve ear stress: As the canine music therapy folks at “Through a Dog’s Ear” advise, take a “sonic inventory” of your environment to uncover and pinpoint noise pollution in your home. Once you realize how much and how often your dog’s ultra-sensitive ears endure the cacophony of human existence, you can work to eliminate this form of stress. Replace noxious noise with quietude and/or slow, specifically formulated music such as that from “Through a Dog’s Ear.”You’ll be surprised by how rapidly it alters the psychological atmosphere for the better.

Natural approach to thunderstorm phobia: An anti-static cape called the Storm Defender was developed and tested as a means to protect dogs against static buildup, the idea being that thunderstorm phobia might arise from dogs’ fear of shocks from static during unstable weather patterns. However, placebo-controlled research suggests that the benefit of snug-fitting canine capes and related apparel involves the comfort of tactile pressure rather than static electricity reduction. These mechanisms would then closely correspond to the “squeeze machines” designed to reduce tension and anxiety in autistic children.

Nose

What’s stressful? Strong odors, including perfumes, excessive or irritating essential oils, hair spray, air fresheners, cigarette and other types of smoke.

Natural ways to relieve odor stress: Instead of relying on air fresheners to mask odors, eliminate their source. What’s bad for your dog to inhale is also bad for you, and this includes airborne chemicals! For anxiety and fear, some find success with DAP, or dog-appeasing pheromone. Lavender aromatherapy has shown value in reducing restlessness in dogs in shelter environments, but how much is too much is unknown. I have given clients and myself headaches by using too much lavender aromatherapy in exam rooms.

Mouth/Digestive System Stress

What’s stressful? Poor diet and dentition (teeth). Lack of fresh water. Having to compete with other dogs for food, fear of being attacked while eating, etc. Low quality food, or the same food every day. Difficult to chew or swallow food. Bad-tasting or rancid food. Food that causes indigestion, gastrointestinal inflammation or infection, and malabsorption syndromes caused by pancreatic problems.

Natural ways to relieve mouth-related and digestive system stress: Regular dental examinations and prophylactic cleaning. Fresh, clean water and well-balanced nutrition. Peace and safety while eating. Dietary changes may help as well, ensuring enough protein and digestive enzymes if indicated. Some supplement with tryptophan or other serotonin precursors to impart relaxation and counter depression.

Body, or Whole-System Stress

What’s stressful? Acute and chronic illness is typically uncomfortable and stressful. Temperature stress and climatic factors such as wind and exposure to rain, snow, and ice produce different types of stress. Untreated or undertreated pain takes a long-term toll on health. Excessive exercise (“weekend warrior syndrome”) or imprudent rehabilitation practices can worsen spinal disease and joint pain and cause fear, stress, and more pain in dogs that are exercised beyond their capacity or limitations.

Natural ways to relieve body stress: Comfortable living area and supportive bed, temperature-controlled setting safe from the elements outdoors, regular moderate exercise, medical and home massage and/or other body-benefiting treatments. Some dogs enjoy heating pads or the application of cold on painful areas; what is appropriate depends on the individual and whether the pain responds better to heat or cold.

The list goes on and on. I welcome your input and feedback on what you find helps keep stress at bay in your own dog and cat families. But remember, just as it’s important not to cover up harmful or offensive odors with air fresheners, it’s important not to whitewash an illness by attributing it to “just stress”. The best way to address a bladder infection, a painful tooth, or disk disease is through definitive veterinary care and regular physical examinations.

Filed under: behavior and training,pets, connected,veterinary medicine — Dr. Narda Robinson @ 5:05 am

12 Comments »

  1. Wonderful article – I’m passing this on.

    One other point I’d like to add – we also need to manage our own stress levels, because oftentimes, pets absorb our stress. People and pets often mirror each others’ physical and emotional states. Animals are natural healers and I’ve sometimes seen them take on their person’s problems, often in an attempt to heal them. I think this happens because of the deep bond shared between a pet and his or her person. Because of the shared energy in such a close relationship, energetic imbalances are shared as well. Pets, and particularly cats, can be regular “stress sponges.”

    In reading Dr. Robinson’s post, it struck me that her suggestions really apply to reducing human stress levels as well – so we’re not just helping our pets by following her suggestions, we’re also helping ourselves!

    Comment by Ingrid King — March 14, 2010 @ 7:14 am

  2. I have hosted five or so dogs here at my house and 25-30 rabbits. Some stay for 6-12 months, others only a few weeks.

    I am a firm believer in telling animals what’s coming. On vet appointment day, I start telling them in the morning. “We’re going to see Dr. ABC today. She’s going to help you with your eye. She likes rabbits!”

    I also think that giving them transition time from one activity to the other is important. I have to give a lot of medicine, oral and injection and nebulizer (my poor congested girl bunny and her stubborn stubborn bacteria!) I always announce it a few minute sin advance. “It’s time for your treatment. Are you ready for your treatment?”

    I also say where I’m going when I leave the house and when I’ll be back.

    I don’t know that they understand the literal words but I do think it helps to lessen the surprise factor and thus, the stress.

    Comment by Mary Mary — March 14, 2010 @ 7:26 am

  3. I agree, I always tell them where I am going & when I’ll be home. Lessening stress helps the whole family.My Trooper has always had bad reactions to noise, but since going to homecooked & raw it is not nearly as bad as when he was on commercial petfood.

    Comment by Leslie K — March 14, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  4. Indeed, Ingrid, many of these approaches are directly applicable to humans. In fact, when I wrote this article, I myself was in the throes of stress, with many projects weighing me down.

    Knowing I had the power to shift my consciousness but still feeling some resistance to changing gears (because of the tenacious and possibly addictive grip that anxiety has sometimes), I started up a music therapy CD.

    I’d been going nonstop, teaching and seeing patients for about 10 days straight, so it took a little longer than usual (about 10 minutes) for things to change, but the layers of pressure began dripping off of me.

    As I relaxed, more and more ideas about treating stress began to assemble themselves. These are things I’d explored previously in research for past articles as well as things that I found have worked over the years, working with both human and veterinary patients.

    On communicating with animals about upcoming treatments, I do frequently hear from my acupuncture clients that on treatment days, somehow their dog “knows” they are “going to see Dr. Narda”. [I recognize that to them the concept of “Dr. Narda” might well refer to the activity of sitting among loving humans, receiving acupuncture, massage, laser therapy, and biscuits, and generally being adored. It might have nothing to do with who “Dr. Narda” is!]

    I don’t know if it’s the mental pictures my clients send their dogs, as telepaths suggest, or if my clients deliver subtle messages as clues.

    It’s not just about going for a ride or going to the vet…they say they haven’t reached for the leash yet or the car keys…it must be something else. I even have had people tell me (one as recently as last week) that their dog seems to somehow know the difference between going to their vet for acupuncture (which makes the dog happy and excited in anticipation) or going to the same vet, the same office, etc., for conventional medical care or evaluation.

    I do find that my clients try to let their dogs know if they ARE getting something other then acupuncture done at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The dogs pull their person to our pain medicine treatment room and sometimes refuse to go elsewhere; they link our office with safety, relaxation, and biscuits. It’s really hard to disappoint them if they are there for something else…

    Comment by Dr. Narda — March 14, 2010 @ 8:39 am

  5. I’m booking an appointment … for MYSELF!!

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — March 14, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  6. Gina, did I mention we have jerky treats as well?

    But really, imagine thinking one is going in for a massage and actually ending up seeing the dentist. Yowee!

    Comment by Dr. Narda — March 14, 2010 @ 9:10 am

  7. Great article. I try to practice telling pets where I have to go and how long I may be or more recently when we are seeing the vet(s). But the doctor is right, I need to amp up what I do around home often times.

    Comment by VJ — March 14, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  8. Another thing I thought of is filtered water.

    I always have one or two water-filter pitchers in my fridge. This is what I drink and what I give to the animals. People laugh and tease that the rabbits and dogs are “spoiled,” but I think that is silly. Evian water would be excessive, yes. Tap water with as much gunk as possible filtered out of it — this is baseline care, in my opinion. Filters cost about $5 a month.

    My friend moved her seven bunnies to one of her rental properties. Within several days, four of them were extremely ill. When I suggested that the water caused the illness, she argued that it was city water, same as the other building where they’d lived. I said yes, but not run through the same PIPES.

    Maybe the mineral content was too high for some of them to handle. OR maybe the water tasted funny (like chlorine or something) and the rabbits were drinking less and became dehydrated, leading to GI stasis.

    She agreed that it made sense and went out and bought several gallons of spring water.

    Another person I know lost her rabbit to toxic levels or mercury in their well water. Her dogs had become very ill also, but they pulled through. The vet explained that the mercury levels were safe for HUMANS but not for pets.

    Comment by Mary Mary — March 14, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  9. Dr. Narda, some of my Reiki clients report the same thing – it’s like the dog or cat “knows” it’s their day to “go see Ingrid for Reiki.” One of my weekly dog clients waits by the front door the day I come to see him at his house – he doesn’t do this any other day of the week at that time of the day. Another sits by the door, waiting for the owner to get ready to take him to see me. While acupuncture and Reiki are different modalities, they both work on the body’s energy system on some level. I wonder whether there’s a connection in how these animals perceive the energy around these treatments and the repetitive, regular rhythm of when they receive them, especially since you’re not seeing the same type of reaction on the animals’ part for regular vet visits?

    Comment by Ingrid King — March 14, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

  10. Well, it’s a fairly canine-oriented list …. I have two cats, and one is a male who has had FUS (didn’t get blocked thanks to the prescription food that kept him clear of crystals; episode played out more like cystitis in females). Stress has been identified as a contributing factor in FUS episodes, so it is doubly important to try to make his environment here as low-stress as possible. How about a list of stress reduction items specific to cats?

    Comment by Faye — March 14, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  11. Ingrid,

    I think you’ve touched on a key factor with the regularity of the treatments, though for some animals it also applies to intermittent acupuncture appointments. Maybe there are also scents or other clues that clients emit. Before acupuncture or Reiki, they may be looking forward with favorable anticipation to spending a half hour in a relaxing, quiet room with the central focus being pain relief and quality of life improvement for their animal. In contrast, if one is planning a “regular” vet visit, even at the same location, they may be worrying about stressing their dog or cat out with painful or anxiety-producing procedures, or having to leave him or her overnight in the vet hospital.

    Comment by Dr. Narda — March 14, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

  12. Faye,

    Stress is a key factor in feline urologic syndrome, as you know. Match a susceptible cat with environmental provocation, especially over the long-term, and one has a painful, irritable, and anxious cat who’s urinating inappropriately and/or often.

    Here are some starting ideas to consider in terms of reducing stressors that either trigger or worsen feline urologic syndrome (otherwise known as feline lower urinary tract disorder).

    Intercat-conflict and litter box issues that cause stress related to the urinary tract: Intercat tension and aggression can be a big factor in multiple animal households (like mine!).

    Questions to ask about urination stress include:

    Who’s hogging the litter box? Is your cat fearful of getting ambushed when drinking or urinating? Is the litter box clean? Where is it (privacy, quiet, multiple boxes)? What type of litter (unscented is preferred by far!)? Is the cat declawed and thus has litter become painful to walk on? Is there a litter preference (clay vs. pine vs. recycled newspaper, etc.)? Is there enough litter? Is the litter box open or boxed in (some won’t use a litter box with a top on it)? Does the cat have back/pelvic/hind limb pain that causes him or her to have difficulty making it over the sides of the litter box? There should be at least one litter box per cat per household, and they need to be positioned in locations of the cats’ preference, and neither in only one place nor in difficult-to-access locations.

    Then we can consider dietary and water intake issues:

    How’s the diet? Have there been abrupt changes? Could there be a food allergy? Is there enough liquid in the food? Is there ready access to food? Given that urologic issues may be aggravated or in some cases caused by food allergy and insufficient water intake, stress related to food and water are vital to address. Cats, being solitary hunters naturally, prefer to eat their meals in privacy. Cats are also nibblers throughout the day, so having food available regularly is more natural and less stressful. Of course, we don’t want them to get fat, but the notion of getting all cats to eat in one area and only once or twice a day can very definitely be stressful and worsen whatever condition they may be experiencing (or will experience) as a result of stress. More, frequent, clean water intake is imperative…cats prefer full water bowls and ideally water in a fountain or from a dripping tap. Cats rarely drink from a partly full water bowl, they don’t like plastic bowls, and they don’t like it tainted with other cats’ saliva, so they have to be refilled and cleaned frequently.

    Pheromones:

    Feline facial pheromone complex (Feliway) may help with multi-cat households in which social tension worsens urinary tract disorders, but it won’t overcome tension from other cats.

    Then, there’s exercise and environmental enrichment:

    Is the cat an indoor or outdoor cat? How much exercise, relaxation, sunshine, and fresh air does the cat receive? Cats love to be outside (though they should be supervised, of course!) and moderate exercise will help take down their stress levels and improve their physiologic status in general, including their immune system. What about vertical space, including cat towers? Cats also need adequate hiding places and distance from other cats, and time to be alone but not excessively left on their own. Can the cat meander around the house freely, or will entry and exit sites from room to room be blocked by another cat who’s intimidating the others?

    Noise:
    Any new babies or human family members? TV? Shouting? Video games? Loud radio?

    Psychoactive plants and other greens:
    Does the cat have access to fresh greens (i.e., grass and catnip)? Catnip and even dried valerian root can both provide short-term relaxation (after the initial funful episode) and antioxidants activity. No marijuana. Why I say this is that with all the medical marijuana shops opening up in Colorado, ER vets are seeing more cases of marijuana ingestion by companion animals, sometimes at dangerously high levels.

    Body comfort:

    What about massage? Is there sacroiliac or back or other pain that is worsening bladder function? I might recommend integrating acupuncture and laser therapy as well. If not that, some appreciate brushing which can also be relaxing for them, in moderation. Of course, they tell us when they’re done!

    Finally, some are looking at the role of supplemental glycosaminoglycan (GAG) to improve bladder wall health.

    Comment by Dr. Narda — March 14, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

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