Integrative Pet Vet: Stress response in dogs can influence behavior and health

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet
Dr. Ron Carsten

Encountering stressful situations is a normal part of life. Response to stress is key to addressing and managing day-to-day activities.

Small amounts of short-term stress can be a valuable and inevitable part of life. At the same time it is clear that intense, prolonged and recurring stress is detrimental to health.

Health issues that can be affected by stress range from digestive disorders, urinary bladder issues, skin problems, mental health, to reduced immune function.

Defining stress is challenging, because what constitutes a stressful situation or event is based on the perception of the individual that is being affected. In other words an event or stimulus may be interpreted by one dog as not stressful while another dog may react in mild or excessive ways.

The response is based on prior experiences including events that happen during puppy development (see previous article, Puppies undergo rapid physical and mental development) and conditioning or exposure to the stressful situation. Another important component of how a dog responds to potentially stressful stimuli depends on the presence of certain health challenges.

Classically, the response to stressful stimuli has been described as a fight-or-flight reaction. This means that the dog either becomes aggressive and fights or the dog flees the situation. However, it is clear that there are other reactions that dogs have to stressful situations.

These have been termed fidget and freeze reactions. During a fidget response, the dog seems unsure how to react and may have lip licking, lifting a paw, pacing, trembling, and other signs of fear. During the freeze reaction, the dog remains motionless during the stressful situation.

Obvious health problems that contribute to an individual dog’s stress include reduced mobility and pain from osteoarthritis. Older dogs can become aggressive when handled or approached by other dogs because of their pain. Other sources of pain include problems like the alignment of the spine that can impact nerve roots and contribute to muscle spasms.

Emerging information also indicates that alignment and positioning issues associated with the first vertebra in the neck can contribute to changes in behavior patterns and ability to successfully respond to and resolve stressful situations.

During the classic fight-or-flight reactions, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. The SNS is part of the unconscious control process managed by the autonomic nervous system. Stress activates nerve and hormone responses including the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

When a stress is encountered, nerve signals are sent to a specific part of the brain (hypothalamus). From there, nerves connected to the adrenal glands stimulate the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, and another brain structure (pituitary) is stimulated to release a chemical messenger that signals the adrenal to release cortisol. Heart rate increases, blood flow to the brain and muscles increase, blood pressure goes up, and the digestive process slows.

For dogs that have an ongoing stress response, it is important to address the problem by identifying each contributing factor. Issues related to pain are not always easy to identify because many dogs are stoic.

Other issues related to behavior or anxiety challenges rooted in experiences during puppy development can be difficult to recognize. Regardless of the cause of the stress response, adrenal fatigue and mental reactivity can play a significant role. This means that adrenal support using nutritional supplements, glandular supplements and herbs should be considered.

Use of nutriceutical products for anxiety, Bach flower remedies, herbs and calming minerals may be helpful for calming the nervous system. In some situations, short courses of antianxiety medications may be needed along with behavior counseling and training.

Exercise can be beneficial for releasing stress and anxiety. When present, pain should be managed using approaches such as acupuncture, manual therapies, herbs, homeopathic medicines and medications for pain.

If you have questions about stress management in your dog, contact your veterinarian.

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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