The modern pet seems to have it all- a comfortable home, luxury bedding, endless supplies of food and treats, baskets of toys, human attention on tap, weekly beauty routines where coats are washed and fluffed to perfection. Yet, many pets I see are suffering from stress leading to a range of problems, including aggressive behaviour.
It’s a conundrum that many pet owners find hard to understand. How can their pet possibly be stressed, they ask? Stress comes in a variety of forms but can be summarised as the effects of over arousal on the body and brain. Stress is more commonly associated with feelings of anger, frustration, fear or anxiety; however, it can also be caused by high excitement and endless play in the park, daily episodes of barking at passers- by, the sounds of foxes or other dogs from within the home- the list is endless. Remember the feeling of infatuation where you cannot stay still, cannot eat and your heart flutters- that is also stress. The impact on your body is pretty much the same, no matter the source.
Whatever the driver, arousal causes the sympathetic nervous system to release chemicals that force the body into top gear. The state of ‘fight, flight or freeze’, makes sense in emergency situations but is harmful when repeated over and over. Once the limbic system revs up, the rest of the body has to shut down. Digestion is inhibited (this is why a stressed animal, will refuse food), as is the immune system. After each stress event, the body’s chemicals do not return to baseline, they linger, tuning the nervous system to fire up even more easily at the next stress trigger. Before you know it, this elevation in stress hormones becomes the new normal. Long terms stress damages not only the body but also areas of the brain key to memory and learning.
The limbic system is not meant to run for days on end. Just as you don’t keep your car or bicycle in high gear the whole time. Too much triggering of the limbic system and the associated adrenalin rush can lead to a depletion of hormones associated with relaxation and sleep: serotonin, dopamine and paradoxically even exercise related endorphins. Your pet will also find ways to vent as all that internal tension boils over possibly leading to aggressive episodes, relentless barking and lunging and a host of other unwanted behaviours. The temporary feelings of relief (reinforcement) experienced by the stressed pet may in turn cause those behaviours to become habitual.
Recognising stress is important. ‘Excessive’ or repeated behaviours, where the pet seems unable to settle until very tired, may be indicators something is awry. Signs can be surprising and may include repeated tail wagging, jumping up, getting hyped up on the walk to the park. Some dogs suffer from what is known as poor impulse control and may exhibit similar behaviour but distinguishing this from stress is crucial and it is best to consult a behaviourist to decide what is going on. Learned behaviours arising from stress will require behaviour modification and a training and stress reduction plan. This plan will almost certainly involve changes to the environment and life-style with a view to helping the dog learn to switch off at various points throughout the day.