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Protecting pets from stress.


Most of us encounter more everyday stress than we like. (I sleep with a copy of Stress without Distress under my pillow.) Many times I've looked at my four-legged friends and muttered, "I should be so lucky to lead a dog's life.'

Stress is normal; it is the body's response to a demand. In the animal kingdom, the "fight or flight' reaction is often necessary to ensure survival.

We are accustomed to thinking of stress as something bad--the stress of an IRS audit--but a pleasant stress-- meeting Burt Reynolds in person-- can actually cause the same bodily reactions. We are well aware of the increased heart rate, blood pressure and sweaty palms that occur in such instances. Yet we would not want to eliminate the "good' stresses or challenges that keep us excited about life.

Stress can be voluntary or involuntary. A beagle chasing a cottontail rabbit creates involuntary distress to the rabbit and voluntary eustress (pleasant) to the dog. I'm convinced that the pointer at "point' and the cat stalking a mouse would not elect to eliminate this stress from their lives.

Much of what might be perceived as animal stress is ultimately the design of humans. We have often taken it upon ourselves to change nature, for example, by developing certain animal breeds. The magnificent English bulldog was originally bred for bullbaiting, an occupation that probably distressed both dog and bull. The conformation that enabled the bulldog to bite and hold a bull to the finish has also led to the breathing abnormalities and the whelping difficulties so often experienced by the breed today. The bulldog is also, as a result, prone to heatstroke. In much the same way, the flat face of the Persian cat contributes to its susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Training, hunting, showing, hard work, pregnancy, lactation, travel, surgery, trauma and chronic disease can lead to stress for an animal. Many of these are the same factors that trigger human stress.

An animal's reaction to stress is often a seemingly unrelated behavior such as grooming. A bird on the edge of its territory may preen when confronted with an intruder. Prolonged conflict situations may lead to excessive grooming, hair loss and self-inflicted injuries. Birds may progress to feather-picking, cats to excessive licking and people to biting fingernails.

Preventive care such as good nutrition, shunning overindulgence, exercise and positive owner-pet interaction all help to temper stress.

1) Good nutrition does not mean overindulgence. Often, we overfeed and underexercise our pets to the extent that they, like us, suffer the stresses that obesity exerts upon the body.

Feeding a high-salt diet may contribute to high blood pressure. The protein in the diet should meet, but not exceed, the animal's requirements. A sedentary, older house dog does not have the same requirements as an Alaskan sled dog. Too much protein can cause stress to an older dog's compromised kidneys; too little can cause wasting of the muscles. Picky cats that eat only organ meats such as heart or kidney will suffer bone demineralization because of the excess phosphorus content of their diet. Indiscriminate supplementation of growing puppies' diets with mineral preparations may cause the very bone disorders the well-meaning pet owner wants to avoid. Consult with your veterinarian about the individual nutritional requirements of your pet.

2) Animals and people need exercise, and limiting a pet's muscular activity can lead to chronic stress. Experiments with the restrictions of space travel have caused chronic stress symptoms--disorientation and muscular weakness--in dogs and monkeys. This chronic restraint stress can be compared to bed-rest syndrome in people, which leads to bed sores, constipation, dizziness and muscle weakness. Animal cages and kennels need to be large enough, and animals boarded or caged for any length of time need plenty of exercise. Resting boards should be provided for cats and perches for birds.

Boredom may be the ultimate chronic stress for animals as well as humans. A recent study found that market pigs given "toys,' such as a ball to play with, gained weight faster than pigs with nothing to do but to eat and sleep.

3) Conditioning helps animals to tolerate stress. Short, pleasant trips with your dog to the ice-cream parlor help condition the dog to overcome its fear of automobile rides. Often we, as pet owners, set the psycho-logical pattern for stress. If we convey to a new puppy on its first visit to the veterinarian's office, "Poor baby, the puppy takes its cue from us. Often, pets seem to suffer from their owners' phobias and neuroses.

4) Handling early in life set permanent physiologic and behavioral baselines for animals. Rats handled (stroked) early in life show different body and behavior responses to stress in adulthood than do rats not so handled. As adults, the stroked rats appear less frightened by unknown situations and more resistant to many illnesses and other environmental stresses. For example, Siamese kittens stroked daily in the first ten days of life open their eyes sooner, weigh more at weaning and behave differently during learning tasks than unhandled kittens. Cat owners report that kittens rarely handled before weaning are generally more "skittish' and less friendly to people as adult cats than cats handled frequently as kittens.

We all need a certain amount of stress to get us up and going during the day, but with conditioning, some of the distress that causes our bodies harm must be eliminated. It is the same with our pets, but we have more control over the stresses to which they are exposed. If we give them the positive stimulation of play and exercise, balanced with proper care and calm, quiet times of stroking and petting, we have moved toward control of their stress and, perhaps, our own.

Questions for the Vet

Dear Dr. White:

Can you tell me if it is harmful to keep beagles or any dog in a cage all the time? I have heard this drives them a little crazy after a time and dims their senses so they are not good hunters. My neighbor has a beagle that is caged most of the time. The poor little thing cries so much. They say this is natural for a beagle. Is it? It doesn't bother them but it drives me insane. I am an animal lover.

Amelia Webber

St. Mary's, Pennsylvania

Dear Ms. Webber:

Solitary confinement has a negative effect on both people and animals. Is the beagle's cage large enough for comfort? Is he taken out for walks, play or hunting? All these factors bear on the dog's quality of life.

You might approach your neighbor with the suggestion that you would enjoy having the dog accompany you on your afternoon walks, etc. Perhaps your neighbor is a young mother with small children at home or an elderly person who would welcome your suggestion.

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Article Details
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Author:White, H. Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:column
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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