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Got a stressed dog? What is toxic stress, why should you care about it, and what can you do?

The concept of “stress” can seem abstract, but it actually has a very clear definition. Stress is the result of a triggering event that challenges an animal’s “status quo” and causes a physiological response that involves the release of stress hormones. The release of stress hormones prepares the body for “fight or flight”, kicking you into high gear to prepare for what might come next! The purpose of the stress response is to provide immediate energy to critical systems, and reduce the energy sent to systems that aren’t needed at the time; i.e. the animal experiences increased heart rate and respiration, and the digestion, growth, and immune function systems are suppressed. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it: if you’re about to be eaten by a lion, the last thing your body needs to be wasting energy on is digesting a slice of pizza, you need to get out of there!

Stress does not always have to mean something bad. In fact, there are three different categories of stress: good stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress. It’s important to realize that ANY change can be stressful, since it is challenging our “status quo”, even if it’s good change!

Infographic about the three categories of stress
Not all stress is bad, in fact there are THREE separate categories of stress!

It’s important to realize that, even though we often think of all stress as “bad” or toxic, stress serves a purpose on an evolutionary level. Stress helps an animal adapt so that they can survive the environment they are in. If we didn’t experience stress, we wouldn’t react to potentially dangerous situations going on around us, and we would be less likely to survive! A normal, typical stress response acts like a thermostat in that it creates a negative feedback loop. The body is signaled to start producing stress hormones, but once those hormones reach a certain level the body should stop producing the stress hormones so that the animal can return to baseline after the stressor is gone. But it's when stress goes unchecked and we get stuck in a state of toxic stress that this becomes a real issue! If an animal doesn’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with the stress they’re experiencing, that thermostat can get “stuck”, and the animal might not be able to return to their normal stress levels. This matters because living in a state of chronic stress can cause deleterious physical health issues (see the image below) and is detrimental to an animal’s mental health, causing an increase in anxiety and depression like behaviors.

A list of the health impacts of chronic stress
Toxic stress can do a number on our body!

Yep, you read the image right. Getting stuck in a state of chronic stress can even cause early death. So, knowing all of this, what can we do to help prevent chronic stress for our dogs?

First, know that some of this is out of our hands! Unfortunately stress levels can be impacted by genetics; stress hormones can even be transmitted in utero from mother to puppies, changing the puppy’s brain and ability to cope with stress in day to day life once they're born! This means if you are purchasing a dog, you MUST make sure that the breeder you are buying from understands how stress impacts pregnant mothers and their puppies, and is doing everything they can to prevent stress for mom!

Some other ways to prevent and reduce stress include:

  • Address pain and other health issues! Undiagnosed health issues are a major source of stress, so if you think there may be a chance that your dog is dealing with health issues, get them checked out!

  • Increase the predictability and amount of control your dog has in your their day to day life. Not knowing what to expect is often a major source of stress for our dogs, so the more routine and predictable you can be for them, the better!

  • Carefully consider the changes you’ll be making in your dog’s life. If you are considering a major change to your dog’s life (an example is adding a puppy to a home with a senior dog), carefully consider just how negative the impact could be for your dog, and make sure you have ways to mitigate stress if needed. In the example of adding a puppy to a senior dog household, if your senior wants nothing to do with a boisterous little puppy, can you split your house up until puppy matures and your senior acclimates? Can you take the time necessary to walk both dogs separately, and keep the same routine that you had for your senior dog pre-puppy (remember, routine and predictability are key components of reducing stress!). If you can’t mitigate the amount of stress you are putting on your dog, ask yourself if you should make the change at all.

  • Provide regular enrichment, and for dogs that are social with other dogs (especially adolescents!) provide plenty of opportunity for your dog to play and hang out! Research shows that social play is critical, and can lead to healthier brains and behavioral health!

A labrador, mixed breed, and doberman puppy playing at puppy class
Social play is one great way to protect our juvenile and adolescent dogs from toxic stress!

Honestly, the information covered in this post is JUST the tip of the iceberg. But it’s a good place to start, and if you can be aware of how stress effects your dog and make the changes needed to protect them from it's adverse effects, you’ll have a healthier, happier, longer lived dog!


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