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Canine stress in a nutshell — why does it occur, how can it be recognised, and what can be done to alleviate it?

02 April 2017
16 mins read
Volume 8 · Issue 3


Every item that an animal encounters, whether animate or inanimate, is a stimulus. If an animal has had the opportunity to learn to remain relaxed in the presence of that stimulus (to habituate) the stimulus will be one that, for that specific animal, maintains a state of emotional neutrality. Alternatively, if the stimulus initiates any form of emotional response (whether positive or negative in its nature), the stimulus becomes a stressor. As the majority of domestic dogs live in close proximity to human owners in a socially and physically rich and diverse environment, exposure to stressors is an inevitable part of the domestic dog's life. However, the impact of these stressors can be severely detrimental to both the emotional and physical welfare of the dog. These welfare infringements can place considerable constraints on the affected dog's behavioural repertoire and its capacity to behave in a manner that is consistent with an owner's and the general public's expectations. Such failures to meet behavioural expectations is a common factor in requests for the relinquishment and euthanasia of dogs. A previous article provided a general discussion on stress in companion animals; this article examines the prevalence, recognition, avoidance and resolution of stress in dogs.

Over the last few years a number of studies have identified that large numbers of dogs are failing to cope with aspects of domestic life. For example, the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report (2015) related that owners considered that 19% of dogs were scared of visiting the veterinary practice; in addition, the report included visiting the groomers (7% showed signs of fear) and kennels as environments where dogs display fear. Blackwell et al (2008) suggested that owners considered that 30% of dogs show signs of anxiety when left alone while 80% could be suffering without their owners recognising their distress; that 47% are anxious when meeting other dogs and 15% can show anxiety around the dogs with whom they live. In addition, the same study suggested that 80% of dogs show an undesirable response to strangers and 13% to family members. Another study by Blackwell (2013) showed that 45% of dogs exhibited obvious signs of fear in response to fireworks and other loud noises. The same paper suggested that a dog exhibiting a distress response to one stressor is predisposed to stress in other contexts. Mills and Mills (2003) identified travelling and holidays as a source of distress for a considerable proportion of dogs (23%), and Pluijmakers et al (2010) wrote of the large proportion of under-habituated dogs, that having received inappropriate preparation for their domestic environment, display the generalised condition, neophobia (fear of anything new). When looking at these facts and figures, it is of particular concern that they are predominantly dependent on owner recognition of the stress-related conditions described, yet only approximately 50% of owners have been reported to recognise even the most obvious of stress indicators in their dogs (Mariti et al, 2012); hence, the actual incidence of these problems could be substantially higher.

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