Integrative Pet Vet column: Pet companionship helps with holiday stress management

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

Stress, stress everywhere: holidays, holiday travel, family, finances, COVID-19, politics, not enough snow, poor road conditions, days are too short, and the list goes on. We often feel that we are surrounded by stressors. Some are self-imposed, and others are not, but the bottom line is that this can be a challenging time of year. Now is when I especially appreciate my pet companions. They are always happy to see me no matter how stressful my day. The wag, the wet nose, the lick, the snuggle tells me I am loved and valued. It brings a smile even on the most difficult days.

Mental health experts recognize that the holidays can be a stressful time. An estimated 75% of Americans have concerns during this holiday season. Underlying these concerns, 37% worry about being able to afford the holiday expenses with travel, gifts and other holiday associated costs; 30% are concerned about getting sick from COVID-19 or spreading it; 23% are concerned with getting along with loved ones; and 21% are worried about loneliness.

Owning a pet is no guarantee that you won’t experience any stresses, but there is evidence that pet companionship provides positive benefits. Surveys estimate 98% of pet owners consider their pet to be a family member. In addition, 74% of pet owners attribute improved mental health to pet companionship, while 75% see improvements in family or friends with pets in their lives. This pet ownership benefit is thought to be the result of increases in secretions like oxytocin that contribute to reduction of feelings like fear and anxiety and promote positive social interactions. Pets provide a feeling of security and daily routine that contributes emotional support. They also facilitate more social interactions that help in forming friendships.

In practical terms, benefits of pet companionship results in an estimated $11.7 billion in human health care savings. These benefits include positive impacts on the ability to respond to infections, maintain healthy blood pressure, manage stress, reduce cardiovascular disease, improve weight management and lessen psychological issues. Overall, pet owners have fewer visits to physicians compared with those who don’t own pets.

It is clear that pet companionship provides a valuable contribution to our health, and they aid us in coping with holiday stress. However, pet ownership is a serious responsibility. Pets require daily care with fresh food and water, exercise and regular medical care.

Like us, pets are also affected by holiday stresses. While our pets help us to cope with stress, they need our help to manage their own response to stresses. As much as possible, keep their daily routines the same. Provide a space in the home where the pet feels safe when company comes for the holidays. Be cautious about feeding unusual foods or too many table scraps, especially ones that have been sitting out for long periods or are under-cooked. Make the home safe from hazards like small ornaments that can be swallowed and cause digestive problems or electrical cords that can be chewed. Avoid access to items like chocolate that can cause toxicities or products with marijuana that pets can be sensitive to.

If your pet is having problems with anxiety, fear or other issues, there are a variety of ways to help using herbs, anti-anxiety nutraceutical products, Bach flower remedies, pheromones and anti-anxiety medications. It is always best to have your veterinarian evaluate your pet to make sure that there are no physical issues like pain from osteoarthritis contributing to the anxiety. For severe anxiety or other behavior concerns, consultation with a behavior specialist may be necessary.

Take time to celebrate the role that pet companions play in our lives and the positive contributions that they make. Recognize that they are individuals with physical and emotional needs that should be addressed during these stress inducing times. Spend a few moments every day with your special companion. It will help them, and it will help you.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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