STRESS AND YOUR PET
By Beverly Kune, ND, DHom, LPCC
It is no more healthy for your pet to be stressed than it is for us humans. Stress takes its toll in many ways compromising overall health, condition, and vitality. Stressed pets are unhappy pets, and often develop behavioral problems. There are many types of stressors, both cute (or long-term). An animal with a healthy nervous system will bounce back after acute stress with little or no lasting effect. Continual repeated short-term stress will take it toll over time, wearing down your petís ability to cope. Long-term chronic stress of course is more of a problem, with chronic adaptation patterning (psychological/physical coping mechanism) developing in your p et just a it does in us humans. Stress can be physical, emotional, or environmental. Most stressors involve emotional arousal which alerts the nervous system to change; to the need to pay attention. Depending on your petís adaptability to change, the level of stress in this respect varies.
Our pets have needs just like us--needs not only for shelter and nutritious food, but also for love, for positive attention, and for consistency in their lives. Although many animals do quite well with only a modicum of attention, most really thrive with a great deal of love, attention and touch. When we adopt an animal we become part of its social system-even cats, who are sometimes labeled loners, will blossom and flourish with consistent attention and handling. Just as there are children who unfortunately are raised with only the barest minimum of attention, attending only to your animalís food and shelter needs ultimately takes its toll in your petís range of expression and behavior. Although your animal will learn to adapt, it might never truly learn to socialize or bond. Most stressful, of course, are obvious physical and emotional abuses which, sad to say, are only too common. We are talking here of repeated abuse, not the occasional physical reprimand, loud voice or restraint. Many of you have adopted animals that show the long-lasting effects of such abuse, no matter who far past in your petís history. Other types of emotional stress are less overt. A reduction of time spent with your pet is a primary stressor, especially when s/he is accustomed to continual or frequent interaction. We often spend far more time with a new pet (especially if young) than we do once they are older. Our schedules change, taking us out of the house more, or our workload shift, occupying far more time and energy than previously. All this can be stressful to your pet. Some animals are more dependent emotionally on their owners than others. Other possible emotional stressors include moving to a new house, the addition of a new pet, the death of companion pet (or owner), a new baby, new boy/girlfriend, and so on. Changes in the environment can also be stressful to some animals, particularly birds.
All of these stressor take their toll. Some animals go into depression and become zombie-like or withdrawn. Appetite may suffer. Often animals start to act out and develop problem behaviors-feather picking; incessant barking or screeching; biting, clawing, and other aggressive tendencies; or become destructive-chewing up cushions, or peeing on the rug.
There are ways to de-stress your pet-some are generalized and others are more specific to your pet and the problem at hand. These will be explored in another article.
This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 1997 issue.
DE-STRESSING YOUR PET
As we have seen, there are many types of stressors that can adversely affect your pet. As with people, some animals are more stress-susceptible than others. It is important to know how to recognize signs of stress in an animal. Unable to verbalize, animals usually act out in some way, often developing what we term problem behaviors. Destructive chewing, excessive screeching or barking, peeing in inappropriate places, feather picking, inappropriate aggression--all of these can be seen as possible indicators of underlying stress. Rather than merely punishing your animal, it perhaps might be more appropriate to look to possible root causes of such behavior.
Animals also exhibit signs of stress physically. Poor coat or feathering or loss of appetite can all indicate underlying stress, both physical and emotional. Again it is important to check out all possible factors when seeking to determine the cause.
Understanding the source of stress allows us to more directly address the stressors, eliminating the when possible. Birds (especially African Grays) sometimes feather pick if their environment undergoes sudden shifts. In such an instance, it might be wise to remove that newly hung painting, or to rethink rearranging the furniture, only gradually introducing change. Likewise, a change in schedule might adversely affect a pet used to more constant attention. Returning home night after night to a chewed up cushion or shoe might indicate the need to give your pet some extra attention or perhaps a companion animal.
While it is not always possible to eliminate or modify the underlying stressors or conditions, understanding them can prove useful in other ways. One of the most effective ways of dealing with psycho-emotional stress in animals is through flower essences. These can be combined in specifically designed formulations to address both the root causes of stress or resulting adaptations (behaviors). I find the Bach Flower essences particularly suited to animals. Up to six individual essences can be combined in specially tailored formulations depending on need. A practitioner skilled in formulating flower essences can aid in your s election. The following essences are, in general, helpful for commonly encountered situations:
Walnut: For any change or transition, such as introduction of a new pet or member of the household/family.
Star of Bethlehem: For any serious (physical/emotional trauma, past or present.
Honeysuckle: (given with Walnut) To aid in adjusting to an ownerís (or companion animalís) absence or death; with Chicory if your pet has been used to constant attention.
Rescue Remedy: An excellent all-around stress reliever.
Aspen: For nonspecific fears or shyness, such as an animal that startles easily or is fearful of new circumstances.
Mimulus: For specific known fears, like thunderstorms or trips to the vet.
Willow: With Walnut, when introducing a new pet, to combat any resentment.
Homeopathics are useful in certain cases, although in general should be given only on advice of a skilled practitioner.
Touch is also a powerful de-stressor. Loving physical contact is unparalleled in helping to combat stress, especially when combined with verbal assurance-animals do understand our words, or at the very least, our meaning behind the words. Ttouch, pioneered by Linda Tellington-Jones, is particularly helpful in reducing tress and relaxing your animalís nervous system. Soothing music, as with humans, is also helpful-particularly in cases of acute stress or overexcitement.
Beverly Kune is a Naturopath and Mind-Body Therapist in Santa Fe, NM.
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue.
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