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How to provide stress relief for our pets

Updated on July 26, 2013
Misty asleep
Misty asleep | Source

Using music to relieve stress and separation anxiety

“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”

― David Mamet, Boston Marriage

The above quote by Mamet certainly echoes the sentiments of the little doggies and kitties that many of us own. Apparently, animals find it difficult to escape the snares of stress as much as we do. Food certainly helps them to get rid of pent up, overwhelming stressors and raise endorphin levels!

Yes, animals do suffer from the doggy,kitty and tweety versions of the provocative ailment of stress. Like us humans, they can suffer from their fair share of breakdowns when the stress bug starts to seal them in a cloistering envelope (or in many cases, cages). What are the causes and signs of these stressors and more importantly, how do we relieve them? What are the effects of stress on our furry friends?

A bored Cloudy.
A bored Cloudy. | Source

Causes of stress in our furry or tweety companions

What causes animals stress? Very much the same things that cause the jitters in us human beings. Some things on this list may be very familiar to pet owners.

Unusual noises

Unusual noises are as disturbing to animals as they are to us. Just as we would be alarmed by the noise of strangers entering our homes inappropriately, so would animals. They are able to distinguish sounds or movements that are potentially threatening.

This is why I have never had to remove or repair the doorbell outside my home. My dogs, Cloudy and Misty, react to the presence of strangers a tad faster than the doorbell would! Like all dogs, they react immediately when they hear something unfamiliar.

Unknown places

Being in unfamiliar environments throws animals a little off tangent. Perhaps more than us, animals feel threatened when they are within unfamiliar surroundings and react by whining,bristling or chirping louder than the norm.

I had a taste of this when I brought my dog, Misty to the vets’ recently. As soon as she was introduced to the outer environs of the clinic, she immediately defecated. Usually quiet, it was a way for my 11-year-old Schnauzer to show her discomfort with the new area.

Cloudy, my West Highland Terrier. took it a step further. She did battle with the veterinarian’s nurse when he tried to restrain her so that she could have her quarterly vaccination.

Confusing,inconsistent training or handling

Animals take a little time to get used to our communication signals. When we tell them to sit and they try to obey the signal, it throws them off course when we provide many instructions or commands at once.

This is why many dogs are confused with the “sit/stay” command. If we teach them to “sit” and introduce the “stay” command at once, the dog gets a little thrown off because it does not know whether to remain where it is or not.

Rough handling also throws a dog off course. At a grooming station a month or two ago, I witnessed one of the groomers practically throw a small chihuahua into his cage after its grooming session. It took little hesitation before I lodged a firm complaint.

The unusual behavior of humans

When humans start to behave out of the norm or show changes in their daily routine, animals find it a little difficult to get used to. My dogs get a little disturbed when I leave the house at a different time in the morning.


If anyone reading this article suffers from a little claustrophobia, it might help to know that you are not alone. Many of us do and animals nod their assent when I say they do too.

When too many of animals are crowded in a particular environment at once, it causes them the same discomfort and pressure that we feel. When we throw a few humans into the crowded mix, it worsens the tension. Territorial issues surface when they feel that their space is being threatened.

Extreme temperatures

We all know what it is like when the weather is too hot or cold for us. It should come as no surprise to find that changes in temperature cause the same reactions in animals.

Observe a dog after a bath. Some of them will tremble vigorously because of the unmoderated temperature of the water used.

Inadequate stimulation

Boredom in animals fuels high levels of stress. Their need for a change of environment or a stretch is as necessary for them as it is for us.

My dog, Cloudy, is always sulky in the morning because that is the time when we are usually busy and cannot take her out for her daily romp. The stress of waiting till after dinner sometimes takes its toll on her.

Inappropriate dietary habits

The wrong diet can cause an upset in the animal’s digestive system and bring about issues of nausea or allergic reactions that cause extreme discomfort for animals. Excessive feeding has the same effect of indigestion on animals as it does us, so it is good to do a little calculation to find out just how much your pet should eat.

Cloudy cannot adapt to any changes in diet. Eating something out of the ordinary causes her to vomit and scratch uncomfortably.

Iatrogenic stress

This fancy term actually refers to the stress caused by the fear of medical examinations. The Elizabethan collars that animals sometimes have to wear can be restrictive, as are the common medical smells experienced at the vet’s.

Cloudy evidenced this best when she fought - yes, practically fought - with the nurse at the vet’s when she was about to be given an injection.

Geriatric stress

Dogs feel the stress of age as we do. They feel listless as levels of cognition go down and their physical aptitude weakens. Dogs, in particular, can be prone to Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or or disorientation as they grow older.

A stressed up Corgi waiting for me to take his picture.
A stressed up Corgi waiting for me to take his picture. | Source

Which if these stressors do you think affects an animal the most?

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Signs of stress in our pets

Dogs, birds and cats have ways of showing us when their anxiety levels have gone up a notch. Observing these signs in animals could mean that it is time to pay attention to them or their environment.

Signs of stress in dogs

  • Panting and salivating

  • Frequent pacing

  • Shedding

  • Excessive bowel movements

  • Urinating in places he or she knows is inappropriate

  • Licking of the lips

  • Frequent coughs

  • Frequent sneezes

  • Dilated pupils

  • Trembling and shaking (as if the animal were shaking off water)

  • Yawning

  • Whining, excessive vocalizing

  • Nipping at strangers

  • Growling when approached to be handled

  • Sweaty paws(leaving sweaty paw prints on the floor)

  • Increased or decreased activity

  • Excessive scratching or repeated licking

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Loss of appetite

  • Hiding behind their owners

Signs of stress in cats

  • Restlessness, agitation or distracted behavior

  • Listlessness, unusual passive behavior.

  • Defensive vocalizations or hisses

  • Excessive shedding

  • Dilated pupils

  • Biting

  • Inappropriate urination/defecation

  • Clinging

  • Hiding or refusing to socialize

Signs of stress in birds

  • Moodiness or irritable behavior

  • hyperactivity

  • Feather picking

  • Increased pecking

  • Increased elimination

  • Inactivity or sluggishness

  • Lack of desire to socialize

  • Excessive vocalization

  • Ruffled feathers

  • Listlessly sitting at the bottom of the cage

Signs of stress in rabbits

  • Enlarged eyes showing snow whites

  • Body tenses with erect tail

  • Ears tightly laid back

  • Growling or squeaking

  • Rabbit bats or pushes its owner’s hand away

  • Lack of interest

  • Tenses when touched

  • Rapid breathing

  • Abrupt biting

A stressed up parrot
A stressed up parrot | Source

Effects of stress on animals

The consequences of stress on animals can be frighteningly similar for them as they are for us. Breakdowns occur,both physically and emotionally, for pets as well.

Heightened cortisol and adrenaline levels

In the same way as it does for humans, cortisol hormones increase when stressors are introduced in an animal’s environment. Adrenaline and unhealthy states of excitement also occur. This increases the risk of cardiovascular disease in mammals.

Studies by Mark Wilson, a neuroscientist and Yerkes Primate Research centre have found that subordinate rhesus monkeys have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than dominant females.

Disrupted reproductive cycles

Ladies are too familiar with irregular menstrual flows when they are overworked or experiencing hyperactivity. Animals experience the same distress too.

The same subordinate Rhesus monkeys involved in Wilson’s study have also shown a disruption in their reproductive cycles when they are harassed or dominated by other females, echoing our reactions when we face stressful situations at home or work.

Skin allergies

Animals experience the same breakouts as we do when we are stressed. Cats, for example, can experience dermatitis when stressed and start scratching.

Emotional upheaval

Boredom and loneliness can be factors that damage a pet’s psyche. This is why it is not advisable to crate a dog for long hours while at work. Long hours can lead to a pet’s perceived abandonment and hence depression.

A dog I photographed recently at a shelter.
A dog I photographed recently at a shelter. | Source

Ways to reduce stress in animals

Animals, particularly those in sheltered (and I do not mean protected) situations, tend to exhibit higher levels of stress than others. There are ways to make situations for comfortable for them, and consequently for us too.

Provide animals with opportunities for play.

A dog thrives on his kong toy, as a cat does with his scratch box or a ball of yarn. Opportunities for play reduce boredom.

Provide opportunities to socialize.

Animals are happiest when they are with friends, just as we are. Daily walks and introduction to other animals at dog runs or others in the neighborhood helps them to socialize and get accustomed to others of the animal and human kind. It rids the animals of the fear of strangers and reduces stress.

Provide adequate bedding.

Adequate bedding helps the animal feel a sense of security in much the same way a blanket does for Charles Shultz’s Linus. Good, secure bedding gives them a sense of comfort and the feeling of being cared for.

Do not stare.

We are all familiar with the tense feeling we get when someone looks over our shoulder or stares at us, We can also think of the many fights that break out because of a loose stare!

Staring has the same effect on animals as it does on us-it increases adrenaline and aggressive behavior borne out of the need for defense.

Do not loom over animals.

If you dislike having your privacy invaded, so would an animal. Looming over them represents threat and would cause stress and tension.

Do not force animals in or out of cages.

I am not an advocate of crating an any animal, but it sometimes has to be done on specific occasions for safety or for the ease of transport. Forcing them into crates is stressful for the animal, and if it resists, for the owner too.

If crating has to be done, gradually introduce the animal to the environment. Make his crate a part of the living room furniture and let him know that it is his place.

Talk softly with animals.

A gentle tone diminishes threat. Speak softly with animals and let them know that you do not mean to be intrusive. It always helps to lower defense mechanisms and reduce stress.


Reducing stress in animals is a key responsibility of pet owners. It benefits not only the pet, but ultimately the owner too.

Original work by Michelle Liew

All rights reserved


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