The ongoing fires of the past few weeks have sadly left many people and their pets homeless. Many pets are therefore being housed in unfamiliar environments, often with unfamiliar people and unfamiliar pets. Their routines are disturbed, frequent travel may be involved, and nothing is familiar. Owners are busy trying to salvage what’s left whilst starting to rebuild their lives. All of these sudden changes, lack of routine and unfamiliarity cause most pets some stress and anxiety. Consequently, this can lead to a number of behavioural and/or medical conditions in your animals. We need to consider both the displaced animals, as well as the pets who are now sharing their home, as they can all experience stress and anxiety during this time as well.
Issues with Stress
There are many conditions for which stress is known to be a predisposing factor. In dogs and cats, gastrointestinal upset is common following a stressful event. This can present as a reduction in appetite or not eating, mild vomiting (dogs and cats), colic (horses), and/or diarrhoea (sometimes containing blood). In this instance, a diet change will have likely also occurred, which can exacerbate the clinical signs. Constipation can also be an issue with diet changes and reduced water intake when stressed.
Excessive grooming resulting in salivary staining, hair loss, and sometimes ulceration (eg acral lick granuloma) is another common stress-induced condition in dogs and cats. Licking and/or chewing are settling behaviours in dogs and cats, so when they feel stressed, they perform these behaviours in an attempt to reduce their anxiety. However, this cycle can be self-perpetuating and ongoing when they damage the skin. Acral lick granulomas can take months to resolve completely once the initial stressor has passed.
In addition to the above conditions, cats are also prone to cystitis (bladder inflammation) and feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) following a stressful event or period. Both of these conditions cause difficult and painful urination. You may see your cat going to the litter box or toileting area frequently, but only produce a small amount or no urine. These conditions can be life-threatening and if your cat has a history of either of these conditions, being proactive to minimise stress is key in reducing the likelihood of a urinary tract episode.
The introduction of a new pet at any stage will cause disturbances to the social structure as they determine where they fit in the group. This can result in trauma from fighting between any of the animals, even those that may have lived happily together for years. It is therefore important that you recognise the early signs of stress in your pets so that you can intervene prior to a fight occurring.
Signs of Stress in Dogs, Cats, and Horses
Many of these behaviours are normal behaviours, however when they occur out of context, to excess, and/or in combination, they indicate that the pet is anxious at that point in time.
What to Do if Your Pet is Stressed
Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to help minimise stress during this time. Try to keep your pet on the same diet if possible, or switch to a bland diet (chicken and rice or sensitive stomach diet for dogs and cats; pasture hay for horses) and transition to the new food gradually over 5-7 days.
Ensure each pet has access to its own valued resources in areas away from human disruption as well as other animals. This includes ensuring each animal has its own eating, drinking, toileting, sleeping, and playing area as well as its own toys. If they choose to do these activities together, this is fine, however they need to have the opportunity to do them separately if they would prefer. This will help your pet feel as though it is in control of its environment and relieve anxiety. It also reduces the risk of other animals bullying them away from these resources, disrupting them whilst they are trying to go about their daily lives, or getting into fights over resources. Pets can be separated with gates, doors, temporary fencing, and/or tying up. It is advisable to keep pets physically separated when they are not supervised until you are confident they are all interacting comfortably.
Try to keep their daily routine as similar as possible in terms of feeding and exercise amounts and times. If you cannot exercise your pet as much as you usually would, then increasing mental stimulation through basic training, scatter feeding, or feeding puzzles are great ideas. Massage, soothing/reassuring voices, and playing classical music (eg “Through A Dog’s/Cat’s Ear) are other methods that can help calm your pets.
Ensure your pet is not suffering any pain or discomfort. Animals in pain or discomfort often show similar behavioural signs as to when they are stressed or anxious. If your pet’s behaviour has changed, and you are unsure if it is due to stress or pain, then a veterinary visit is recommended.
There are several nutraceutical products and foods available over the counter for dogs and cats that can have a mild-moderate calming effect, helping ease anxiety during stressful times. As they are a nutraceutical, there is no harm in using these products pre-emptively, or if your pet does not show signs of anxiety. Contact the KI Vet Clinic for more information regarding these products.
Like some people, some animals suffer so severely from anxiety that they require anxiolytic or antidepressant medication. If you are concerned about your pet, particularly after you have adhered to the above advice, or you require more information on how to manage a particular species or group of animals, please contact the KI Vet Clinic.