Pet Stress: Tell-“tail” Signs and How You Can Help


Stress: it is a word that even when spoken or written causes you to have an immediate reaction, more stress.             According to the Oxford dictionary stress is defined as: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances and pressure or tension exerted on a material object. Day to day living makes stress unavoidable, whether it be the traffic jam that made you late to work or the stain you noticed on your tie just before a board meeting. But humans aren’t the only ones who feel stress. Animals have been the subject of many studies involving stress. For most animals that are domesticated, the stress they face is due to separation from their owner, thunderstorms, or strangers as opposed to the date they have next Friday. We have ways of coping and managing our stress and dogs have theirs. They may whine or go sit in their crate with their favorite toy, but for some, owners must provide a coping aid.

First it is important to know when your dog is stressed; the most helpful clue is your dog’s body language. Every dog is different so there is no standard checklist of stress behaviors, but commonly seen indicators of tension include pacing or constant licking of the lips.  Many dogs that are stressed will stay still or back away, then turn their heads away from the stressor; these sidelong glances cause only the whites of the eyes to be visible (“whale eye”).  Yawning, drooling, paw sweating and even urine marking can indicate agitation. Excessive shedding and body language cues such as a low tail or body carriage and/or pinned back ears are cues your dog is unsure or afraid.  Heed your pets’ warnings! If subtle cues are ignored, there is a chance a stressed dog may react by biting or running away. Some leading causes of stress in dogs are confinement, change of routine or companions, noise, lack of stimulation or excessive stimulation, boredom, and separation.

Relieving stress in your dog is individual as each dog has their own list of provocations and threshold levels. If you notice your dog is more anxious when you leave the home then maybe it is time to consider finding a dog day care for your pet while you are at work or crating your dog for variable vs. set periods of time each day. Exercise is a great way to relieve or minimize stress and by varying your schedule, the dog no longer will anticipate lengthy departures each time they are confined. Consider stopping home on your lunch hour or have a friend or neighbor do so, that way your dog is given a little enrichment outdoors. Novel toys or “jackpot” treats can be given each time your dog is crated and when they are behaving calmly upon you return.

Dogs are also notoriously fearful of thunderstorms and fireworks. Sirens and smoke detectors can also trigger fear behaviors. I’ve seen dogs that hide in the bathtub, under desks, tear through screens and chew destructively during times of agitation; some dogs merely shake while others become catatonic. Don’t wait for these behaviors to escalate or resolve themselves; there are now ways to help dogs cope. Easily accessible over the counter calming medications may help your dog get through the storm. Some of these include; Composure Liquid, Rescue Remedy, anxitene, Quiet Moments, HomeoPet Anxiety and Be Serene. If you follow the instructions and dosage and consult with your vet beforehand, these medications are a great way to help your pet feel more relaxed through a thunderstorm. Although these drugs are safe, they can be harmful if given in excess; speak to your vet if you need advice on dosage, drug interactions, or alternative/additional remedies. Another option for pups afraid of the noises is the conveniently named thundershirt. This “coat” is basically a snug fitting jacket that wraps around your dog targeting various pressure points to create a sensation that is supposed to be similar to swaddling a baby. Results using this method seem to vary. I do believe that a correct fit really does make the difference. The shirt has to be snug to be effective and may not be ideal for all pets’ body types. If your pet store has a good return policy, try it out since you have nothing to lose!

If none of these home remedies seem to be working and your dog is still as stressed as a college kid during finals week, which is very stressed, then it is time to call your vet. Just like humans, dogs can be prescribed anti-anxiety medication. In fact my uncle’s dog had such bad separation anxiety that Dr. McIntyre had to prescribe him medicine after Benadryl, calming pills and a thunder coat wouldn’t work. Prescription medications may also be necessary before considering behavior modification techniques such as teaching calming postures and desensitization (gradual introduction to stressor below reactive threshold).  Dogs that are extremely fearful are not receptive to modification until their anxiety can be dramatically reduced. These medicines are almost identical in chemical structure to the medicines humans; some medicines are indicated for  long term and others short term usage. This means some may be given right before a storm rolls in in order to prevent anxiety whereas others may be given daily to decrease and hopefully eliminate behaviors associated with separation anxiety.

When we are stressed, it is easy to forget that our furry friends may be too. It is important to monitor the mental health of your pet as well as their physical health.  Disruptions to either can significantly affect quality of life. If you notice unusual behavior in your pet, make a note and speak to your vet. Sometimes stress can be easily managed with over the counter remedies, providing a quiet, safe haven, eliminating the stressor (blocking the window so the mailman’s approach isn’t visible), or a thunder coat; sometimes it may require a prescription from your vet, but stress can be managed. Enjoy our beautiful summer weather!

Danielle Difusco (Pre-vet student) with Dr. Lisa McIntyre

The Welcome Waggin’- 630-699-3113-