By Dr. Narda Robinson
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.
Even 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?
Letâ€™s consider, for example, how stress affects our canine companions and what we can do about it.
Whatâ€™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.
Whatâ€™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 â€œThrough a Dogâ€™s Earâ€ advise, take a â€œsonic inventoryâ€ of your environment to uncover and pinpoint noise pollution in your home. Once you realize how much and how often your dogâ€™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 â€œThrough a Dogâ€™s Ear.â€Youâ€™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 dogsâ€™ 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 â€œsqueeze machinesâ€ designed to reduce tension and anxiety in autistic children.
Whatâ€™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. Whatâ€™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
Whatâ€™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
Whatâ€™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 (â€œweekend warrior syndromeâ€) 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 itâ€™s important not to cover up harmful or offensive odors with air fresheners, itâ€™s important not to whitewash an illness by attributing it to â€œjust stressâ€. The best way to address a bladder infection, a painful tooth, or disk disease is through definitive veterinary care and regular physical examinations.