Dog Stress & even over playing can be deadly to your dog - a20
The most remarkable thing about dog stress is that daily many dogs are put under physical and psychological stress that their owners are unaware of causing. The results of simple play acts can in fact cause more stress than any other activity your dog does - which in turn can considerably lower your dog’s life expectancy.
You should also be aware that a dog wagging its tail is not telling you that it is happy, it is just a sign of excitement, which at its basest level is a form of stress.
What are the human events that cause dog stress?
These are major life changes that affect people also can have a very detrimental affect on dogs. Such as:
- Getting another pet
- Divorce or any change in family members
- a move to a new home
What dog changes stress your dog
- Any inconsistency in routine such as changes in walk time or feed times
- Inconsistent training (as they don’t know what is expected of them)
- Boredom (not enough walks and lack of a natural yard environment to explore)
- Visits to the vet/ groomer/ kennels
- Riding in cars
- Separation anxiety
- Hidden pain (dogs will always play down the effect of pain as in the wild this is seen as a weakness)
- Excessive play
What happens in your dog’s body during stress?
The reactions to stress in a dog’s body are exactly the same as happens to a human, however humans have the ability to be much more in control of the cause of their stress. Humans can choose to leave a job or house, but dogs are pretty much stuck with the environment and exercise pattern that their owner’s choose.
Everyone is aware of the release of adrenaline to an exciting or stressful situation and the resulting fight or flight response. In the wild this is an important method of supplying muscles with extra energy to complete a survival task. However situations that domestic dogs find themselves in daily are not brought on by life and death situations, and worse still, the long term affect of continual stress is much more damaging that the reason this process was evolved to deal with, the hunt.
Medically, human and dogs have two communication systems that allow movement. The voluntary system and the involuntary / autonomic nervous system. The part that deals with stress is the autonomic system which is further divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. It is the sympathetic system that is activated by our response to stress.
When your dog gets excited or scared it is the sympathetic nervous system that releases adrenaline into the bloodstream. While this can happen due to human changes in circumstance, it will also happen every time your dog goes to a dog park, plays fetch or tug of war or meets another dog or person. These things in themselves are not bad as they are based around play, exercise and socialization – all very necessary things in a dog’s life. But like many things in life, it is how well your dog deals with each one and a question of moderation.
The dog’s response to these stresses also involves the chemical Noradrenalin which is distributed through nerve endings throughout the body. This allow the dog to perform at high levels for short periods of time by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Oxygen and nutrients are carried throughout the body at a faster rate in response to stress. However during this time digestion and growth are inhibited to conserve energy. Frequent stress and adrenaline also inhibit the immune system making a dog more suscpetabile to disease and even allergies.
Simple stress effects of just visiting your dog
When you return home you may think that your dog’s excitement is a good thing, that its excitement pleases you as an act of its love to you. But Norwegian dog trainer and researcher, Turid Rugaas discovered in the late 90’s that this in itself causes a high level of stress. Here is the sequence of dog greetings and the resulting dog heart rate:
- At rest, the average resting heart beat was 49.4 beats per minute (BPM).
- When a human entered the room, the BPM increased to 72.
- human approaching dog increased rate to 149 BPM.
- human then left the room and rate decreased to 79 BPM
The important point here is that even after the person left, the dog’s heart rate remained at nearly double the prior resting rate, for a considerable amount of time.
Short term effects of dog stress
These are some of the obvious external or physical symptoms (ref 2) that can be attributed to dog stress:
• Excessive barking, whining .....
• Excessive licking
• Biting the leash
• Sweaty paws
The reason that these levels of stress last in the dog’s body for so long and turn into these physical symptoms is that by domesticating the dog we have completely changed the way the evolved to live. In the wild a dog hunts in a pack and the stress and adrenalin increase as it pursues its prey. This is a necessary short term boost to its body for reasons of survival. The stress allows extra energy to be available to the muscles so that it can sustain high performance.
After the dogs catch the prey, they would normally have a long period of recovery. They would get to enjoy the rewards of the hunt and chew the prey then sleep and recover. The bodies parasympathetic system kicks in the reduce all of the stress hormones and add calming ones instead.
As you can imagine, a domestic dog rarely gets to do what it was designed to do. This is why training methods and exercise methods that mimic the chase and hunt and being rewarded by a proper feeding ritual are what is important to helping reduce a dogs stress levels in its newly adopted artificial environment (our homes).
Long term dog stress effects
It is known that adrenaline in a dogs body continues to be produced from two to fifteen minutes after the initial stress stimulus. As part of adrenalin production the hormones cortisone and ADH (antidiuretic) are also created. Both of these can take up to six days to be removed from the body.
I am sure that most people are aware that the long term affects of cortisone on the body are quite bad, and yet this is what excessive stress and even excessive play can cause in dogs.
In fact Rugass goes further with her assertions on overly stressing dogs through prolonged focused play activities. She believes that active play for 30 minutes or more a day can stress dogs for several days at a time - which is why she recommends highly active play should only be allowed twice a week. This includes intense games of Frisbee and fetch.
The concept is simple. People invented fetch as an easy thing for them to do and to bond with their animals, for herding dogs such as border collies it seems that there is nothing more they would like to do, but the truth is they would much rather herd animals. While they may seem to enjoy ball fetching (because they keep doing it) they are being driven by their instinct to please you. They are conditioned to perform the repetitive act of chasing and returning the same ball over and over, which for a smart dog is more likely to drive them crazy than fulfill them. These are smart dogs that would rather have a more challenging mental activity than things that are easy for us to do.
Similarly the use of Doggie daycare may seem like a good idea. However many people now believe that for many dogs it provides much more stress (having to continually play or submit etc in a confined space) than any socialization benefit it might produce. In fact it can cause a dog to experience a high level of competition and being forced to fit into a pack for an extended period which causes the production of high sustained levels of adrenaline and then cortisone. A higher level of stress is thought to be the three day agility courses: “the body’s stress-chemical production is cumulative and can take weeks to months to return to normal.” Ref 2
Another symptom of excessive production of cortisol besides increased blood pressure is its affect on dog urination. “It is thought that territory marking, rather than being a learned or fixed pattern action is a stress reaction to being at the periphery of the territory where the risks are greatest.” Ref 3
It is the act of high levels of urinating that is thought to bring stress relief by the excretion of cortisol. Your dog just isn’t marketing territory any more, it is trying to flush its body of stress hormones caused by exposure to the presence of competing dogs.
While stress and the resulting adrenalin are obviously beneficial over short periods, long term stress and excessive adrenalin can have many serious side effects. These include regular high blood pressure which can affect the branch points of arteries (causing failure) and fatty deposits can form in the blood vessel linings (which can lead to heart failure etc).
Long term affects of dog stress will have the dog go into a state known as decompensation and a lowered immunity will leave it vulnerable to illness and disease. In working dogs, a symptom of stress “may include whining, pacing, excessive licking or self harming, trembling, spinning or other stereotypic behaviours.” Ref 3
How to reduce dog stress
First of all you need to recognise any of the symptoms and if excessive take your dog to a vet for confirmation. It appears that subjecting a dog to any long term high energy environment such as doggy day care or long games of fetch might be things to avoid.
Training and handling methods must also be strictly reward based rather than punitive.
Providing adequate down time in a safe environment after high energy activities is ideal.
Dog massage, particularly slowly rubbing of your dogs ears (if they like it) can also be of benefit in calming dogs.
Dog walking, where there is a measure of play as well as bonding activities (on lead walks with the owner) are an ideal way of both exercising and socialising your dog. The benefit of any increase in stress, from meeting other dogs or marking territory far out way any negatives from stress for the vast majority of dogs, unless aggression is involved.
It appears that all the experts agree that it is a matter of balance. A small amount of stress is necessary and healthy in dog’s life. Allowing a dog to be over excited from such simple everyday actions as when there is a knock at the door or when you leave home can create long term high health issues for your dog.
While short term affects as described previously are obvious, some behaviours can be easy to misinterpret such as lack of concentration, lowered motivation and even extreme over excitement.
Whatever situation you find your family in when there is a state of change be aware that it is affecting all members of your family and maybe even more so your dog. This is because they have fewer ways of resolving the cause of the stress. In all cases a well fed and exercised dog is more likely to deal better with any such changes.
Please consider Dog Walkers Melbourne (0402 262 875) for all your professional dog walker and pet sitting needs.
Article by Bruce Dwyer. If you wish to use any of this information please refer to the article as a reference and provide a link to http://www.dogwalkersmelbourne.com.au
Ref 1 http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/no-more-play-keeps-adrenaline-bay
Ref 2 http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/3_1/features/5031-1.html
Ref 3 http://positivepolicedogs.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/stress-in-working-dogs/