And how does stress impact my pet’s longevity and quality of life (ie: why should I care)? 

Is your pet stressed? 

Now, at first that might seem like a silly question. As you scroll through social media you’ll see multiple videos making fun of the reality that many of us work so our pets can have a pretty relaxed and chill life. They eat, sleep, play, come to us for cuddles and bonding, go on a walk (hopefully daily if they are a dog), etc. They don’t have to work for a living or have our daily stressors, so why would I even ask if your pet is stressed? 

Let’s go back to our mnemonic: 

The PETS Mnemonic

To ensure a long and happy life for your pet, remember the PETS mnemonic:

P: Proper Nutrition and Microbiome

E: Exercise

T: Training and Socialization

S: Stress Reduction

What is Stressful for Pets?

Stress in pets, much like in humans, is a physical and emotional response to changes or challenges in their environment. This stress can manifest in various ways, including behavioral changes, physical symptoms, and even long-term health issues. Common signs of stress in pets include excessive barking or meowing, destructive behavior, withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and gastrointestinal issues.

Why Is Stress Harmful to Pets?

Prolonged stress can have numerous negative impacts on your pet’s health and well-being:

  • Immune System Suppression: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making pets more susceptible to illnesses and infections.
  • Behavioral Changes: Stress can lead to anxiety-related behaviors such as aggression, excessive licking, or pacing.
  • Physical Health Issues: Stress can cause or exacerbate conditions like obesity, gastrointestinal problems, and skin disorders.
  • Reduced Quality of Life: Overall, stress can significantly reduce your pet’s quality of life, affecting their happiness and longevity.

So in answer to the question, “Is your pet stressed?” I’ll say bluntly: yes, likely. The more important question now—and the one I hope to answer throughout the rest of this article—is why they are stressed and what you can do to reduce that stress.

Why is my pet stressed? 

Let’s start with the easiest stressor – environmental toxins. I say this is the easiest because so much research has been done to prove the same stressors that impact our pets have an impact on our health as humans as well. 

Here are the top 5 on our list of Environmental Toxins: 

Heavy Metals: Foods contaminated with heavy metals like lead and mercury can accumulate in a dog’s body, causing neurological and organ damage over time.

Chemicals: Common household items such as toys, bedding, and cleaning products may contain BPA, phthalates, and formaldehyde. These chemicals can disrupt endocrine functions, leading to hormonal imbalances and increased cancer risk.

Pesticides: Exposure to pesticides like glyphosate (found in Roundup) can cause gastrointestinal distress, liver and kidney damage, and potential carcinogenic effects.

Air Fresheners: Many air fresheners release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause respiratory issues and allergic reactions in dogs.

Tap Water: Unfiltered tap water can contain various contaminants like chlorine, fluoride, and heavy metals. Providing reverse osmosis or filtered bottled water helps reduce the intake of these harmful substances.

Now if this article is stressing you out, here’s the good news. Eliminating or reducing the use of these environmental toxins will inevitably have a positive impact on your health as well. 

In 2021 Tulane University released an article about the impact of environmental toxins on public health, in which it profiled the link between several common toxins and cancer, disrupted hormone production, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The article quickly profiled an 85-mile stretch of land in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” which has since been covered in countless news articles (link to recent Guardian article here). 

We’ve heard about many of these toxins for several years – like BPA, formaldehyde, mercury, and phthalates, and glyphosate, but it seems every year we are told of a new toxin, only to realize its use is nearly ubiquitous. So while it may not be possible to eliminate every toxin from your life, I would absolutely recommend eliminating those we do know about for the health of both you and your pet. 

Our next category includes light and noise. 

Inappropriate Light Exposure

  • Artificial Light: Continuous exposure to artificial light, especially blue light from screens (TVs, computers) can interfere with a dog’s circadian rhythm, leading to poor sleep quality and subsequent health issues.
  • Night Lights: Leaving lights on at night can disrupt your pet’s natural sleep cycle, affecting their rest and recovery processes.

Noise Pollution

  • Electronic Devices: Dogs and cats have a more acute sense of hearing than humans. Constant noise from electronic devices (TVs, computers, air conditioners) can cause stress and anxiety.
  • Loud Environments: Prolonged exposure to loud noises such as traffic, construction, or loud music can lead to chronic stress, affecting your pets mental and physical health.

In my years as a vet, I’ve heard a lot of interesting things – but it’s incredibly common for a pet owner to tell me they leave a TV or radio on during the day when they leave, and a night light or TV on at night. Their reasoning for both is always well-meaning, and very often it is the result of advice given by another vet or pet owner. They believe that the TV or radio will keep their pet company while they are gone, and they don’t want their pet stumbling around in the dark at night. 

Rest assured, your pet can indeed see at night. Have you ever noticed that your dog’s eyes seem to glow in the dark at night? That is due to something called the Tapetum Lucidum, which is a reflective layer behind their retinas. This layer reflects light back through the retina, increasing the light available to the photoreceptors and improving their ability to see in dim light. Cats have an even more developed Tapetum Lucidum than dogs, giving them superior night vision. Cats can see in light levels six times lower than what a human needs to see. Both dogs and cats are also adapted to detect movement in low light (an adaptation which allows them to hunt and avoid predators at night). 

I share all of this to say there is truly no need to leave the light on for your pet – they will manage just fine and, in fact, leaving the light off will indeed reduce stress as it will align with their natural sleep patterns much, much better. 

Now, where sound is concerned, it should come as no surprise that your pet has better hearing than you. I’m sure all of you have witnessed this whenever Fido begins barking at a car you can neither see nor hear. Both dogs and cats can hear sounds in a frequency range over 3 times higher than ours! This makes them sound-sensitive, which is why many hate the sound of vacuums, dishwashers, or washing machines.

While we may find the background noise of a TV or radio soothing, the continuous sound or even inconsistent sounds (like sudden loud noises, music, or changes in volume) can create stress and anxiety in your pet. 

I recommend that pet owners should create a designated space for their pet. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy or overdone – a small corner will do. The key is this small corner should be their space – a place they can come to that is relatively quiet, and comfortable. 

Our final category is Physical and Emotional Stressors

Physical and Emotional Stressors

  • Separation Anxiety: Dogs are social animals and can become stressed when left alone for long periods. This can lead to destructive behavior, depression, and other anxiety-related issues.
  • Lack of Exercise: Insufficient physical activity can lead to obesity, joint problems, and behavioral issues due to pent-up energy.
  • Changes in Routine: Dogs thrive on routine. Sudden changes in their daily schedule, moving to a new home, or introducing new pets can cause stress.

How do I know if my dog is stressed? 

Let me start by saying I would recommend making these lifestyle changes regardless of whether your pet is stressed or not because nearly all of them will benefit both you and your pet(s). 

Though we can’t actually talk to our pets to ask them how they are doing and if they are suffering from stress, there are several tell-tale signs of stress. Excessive barking or meowing, destructive behavior, hiding, shaking, or changes in eating habits are all indicators of stress. Now it’s important to note that while you may not be able to determine the exact cause of the stress as there are likely several factors playing into that, following our trusty PETS mnemonic will absolutely have a positive effect on reducing their stress levels, which will increase their longevity and positively impact their quality of life. 

In each article thus far, I’ve highlighted the importance of being an intentional pet owner. Owning a pet is a responsibility and should not be taken on lightly as your pet will have daily needs that need to be attended to. If you have a chaotic schedule or are away often, having a pet may not be the best decision.

However, if you can provide a stable, loving environment with proper nutrition, exercise, training, socialization, and a focus on reducing stress, your pet will thrive. Your intentionality in these areas can lead to a long, healthy, and happy life for your furry friend. Remember, a stress-free pet is a happy pet!

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