The four Fs of stress in pets

August 5, 2016
Gary Landsberg DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM (companion animals)
Gary Landsberg DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM (companion animals)

Dr. Gary Landsberg received his DVM from the Ontario Veterinary College in 1976 and is a board-certified behaviorist of both the American and European colleges. He offers behavior consultation services at the North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic in Thornhill, is a consultant for VIN, Vice President of Veterinary Affairs for CanCog Technologies and a member of the Fear Free initiative executive committee. He is co-author of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Dr. Landsberg received the companion animal behavior award from AAHA in 2000 and the meritorious service award from the Western Veterinary Conference in 2014.

Your veterinary patients have several responses to extreme stress, but no matter which way they respond, their health may be in danger.

A little stress is natural and vital for getting through the ups and downs of life. But too much stress-whether in terms of quantity or quality? Not natural and not good for you. Now imagine your veterinary patients, who often have little control over what's happening around them. And what's happening around them may make them anxious or scared. At some point, something's gotta give, and that may be the pet's health.

The effects of too much stress

“When stress is intense, recurrent or chronic, then it starts to affect health,” says veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, of North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic in Thornhill, Ontario. How? Immune function can be compromised, meaning pets can't fight off infection as efficiently as normal and wound healing can be delayed. Bladder health can be affected, especially in cats, which are prone to interstitial cystitis. Latent respiratory disease can come to the surface, particularly in pets in shelters.

But wait, there's more! “Dermatologic diseases, gastrointestinal problems, even life span can be affected by chronic ongoing stress,” says Landsberg.

Signs of stress in pets

When pets are stressed, just like us, they release noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol. The result is the famed fight-or-flight response. In reality, there are four responses you might see in pets, says Landsberg-fight, flight, fidget or freeze.

Fight. This is active stress or active fear. The pet may become aggressive to remove the threat in the situation.

Flight. Pets may try to flee the situation. You'll see signs of avoidance, hiding or a lower body posture.

Fidget. This is a conflict situation-the pet isn't sure how to react to the situation. You'll see lip licking, paw raising and other signs of fear.

Freeze. Pets may stay motionless while whatever is happening around them plays out, but what's going on inside is a different story.

Hear all about it from Dr. Landsberg in the video below: