Pets Under Pressure
If you think you’re the only one
affected by stress, guess again.
By Lisa James
Boopie the cat had problems from the beginning, says Sharon Cantwell.
One of five cats in Cantwell’s Park City, Utah, home, Boopie would urinate in the house and “pin down my smallest middle cat and bite him on the back. He would start howling, uncontrollable howling. You haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard a Bengal screaming like that.”
“People should get cats that match their personalities and energy levels. All of my tabbies are super-high energy,” says Cantwell, an equally energetic retiree from the semiconductor industry. A Bengal—known for displaying a high-revving motor and mischievous playfulness as much as for its exotic appearance springing from wildcat ancestry—seemed to be a excellent fit for the household.
However, according to Cantwell, Boopie’s natural boisterousness turned into outright misbehavior because of ill-treatment by his breeder, who would let five or six litters of kittens out of their cages for five minutes at a time. “She would chase him down and throw him in his cage,” Cantwell says. “He’s had a nervous disorder ever since I brought him home. He learned humans were not to be trusted.”
On the other hand, Jackson the Cairn Terrier had been a model companion for nine years.
Even with a stubbon streak, Jackson “loved his caretakers’ two children profusely as he and the family grew together,” recalls Dennis Thomas, DVM, owner of Heart to Heart: Holistic Health Care for Pets in Spokane.
However, as Thomas relates in Whole-Pet Healing (Hay House), Jackson’s people came to Thomas’s office after their dog “had become angry and had bitten the kids on more than one occasion.” Despite three medications prescribed by another veterinarian, “nothing seemed to be working, and the caretakers were considering euthanasia to protect the children.”
In a country full of pets—almost 144 million dogs and cats alone, by one estimate—the stories of Boopie and Jackson aren’t unusual.
Experts agree that stress plays a major role in what looks like “bad” behavior; as Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, a certified cat behavior consultant who practices as The Cat Coach, puts it, “Stress is a big component of behavioral issues.”
The concern goes beyond inappropriate behavior, though. As is the case with their human companions, pets who are chronically stressed run a greater risk of becoming physically ill.
Each animal’s stress tolerance is different. “You can have two littermates; one will be very well adapted to the environment and the other will be a nervous wreck,” says Paul McCutcheon, DVM, founder of the East York Animal Clinic & Holistic Centre in Toronto. “The difference is how they handle the stress factor.”
Stress can result from the wrong breed choice. “Say you have a Jack Russell Terrier living on the fifteenth floor of a building,” says McCutcheon, author (with Susan Weinstein) of The New Holistic Way for Dogs & Cats (Celestial Arts). “It’s a little energy machine and if it isn’t exercised enough, that’s a real problem.” Some animals become anxious when separated from their people or exposed to loud noises.
Among felines, inter-cat relations can also be stressful (even seeing stray cats through a window can stress indoor cats). “Imagine if you have five cats with one litter box and one says to the others, ‘You’re not going in there’; the other cats urinate somewhere else,” says Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, chief of the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at UC Davis Veterinary Medicine in California. Krieger says cats can be upset by changes such as moving or vet visits; in studies, cats subjected to irregular, indifferent care show higher levels of stress hormones.
One of the biggest sources of stress in our pets’ lives, however, is us.
“The way people are around their animals can stress or relax them,” notes Krieger, a columnist for Catster.com and author of Cat Fancy’s Naughty No More! (Bow Tie Press). Bain says people can stress their pets by being inconsistent. “They don’t know what to expect—for example, one person allowing the dog on the couch, the other not allowing it.”
Animals are attuned to tension, such as marital discord, among their human housemates. “They pick up on your energy; they’re experts at reading body language,” says Andrew Wildesen, CPDT, owner and head trainer at the Canine Training Center in Columbia, Maryland. McCutcheon adds, “I hate to tell you the number of people I see whose pets have a lot of health problems and say things like, ‘I’ve just been through a nasty divorce’ or ‘My husband just walked out.’”
“Entanglement of energy” is the way Thomas describes this phenomenon.
“If you spend a lot of time with a pet, you’re going to energetically influence your pet,” he explains. “If you bring negative energy when spending time with your pet, then that’s going to have an effect.”
Thomas says 20% to 25% of his clients “have exactly the same clinical manifestations that the pet has,” such as a person who suffers from asthma with an asthmatic cat or an owner with a rash whose dog has a rash, too.
In other cases, the pet reflects the person’s inner turmoil. One woman had a dog that chewed itself constantly, and “it became clear that she was overwhelmed with her life,” Thomas says. “This dog is getting negative energy from this lady being overwhelmed, even though the lady didn’t have skin problems.”
In other cases, the physical symptom can itself be a stressor. For example, “one of the things we never address in pets is headaches,” says Thomas. “They can’t tell us, ‘This is hurting me.’ There’s going to be a stress component to it.”
Such stress can cause an animal to act out in ways that trouble owners. “The dog who is suffering from separation anxiety may manifest through destructive behavior, chewing up things around the home,” says Wildesen.
Don’t take your cat soiling the closet or your dog chewing the cushions personally—they are not being vindictive. Krieger says cats “don’t act out of revenge, nor do they intentionally try to irritate.” There are always reasons behind a pet’s behavior.
If you see signs of stress in your pet (see the boxes above), don’t delay in seeking assistance. “It’s important to address it as soon as possible,” says Wildesen. “These behaviors can become ingrained very deeply.” In one study, a number of dog owners couldn’t decode signs of stress in dogs (Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7-8/12).
Your first stop should be the vet’s office. McCutcheon calls the urinary tract “a common feline weak spot” in terms of stress; dogs often show stress in skin or digestive tract issues.
Thomas treated Jackson the terrier with acupuncture, Chinese herbs and a diet that was lower in carbohydrate. “In a short while, Jackson was his old self,” Thomas says.
It’s important to give your dog or cat what they need to thrive, including fresh unprocessed foods and adequate exercise. Try to protect your pet from toxin exposure; McCutcheon notes that their coats “trap airborne and other pollutants, which they lick off.” That includes inappropriate vaccination. McCutcheon appreciates the ability of vaccines to protect against disease but says, “Vaccination is a significant stressor.” Your best bet is to discuss vaccine scheduling with your veterinarian.
Don’t project fear onto an ailing pet. Thomas gives the example of someone being told their dog has lung cancer. “Negative energy comes up,” he says. “You have to say, ‘I have to do whatever it takes to get out of fear mode and get positive energy flowing.’” Thomas recommends taking 20 minutes a day to deeply connect with your animal, which produces a “sense of gratitude: ‘I’m grateful I have you in my life.’ Imagine the dog is healthy—sit there seeing him eating and running and playing. That’s sending out this energetic message, ‘We’re directing healing for this dog.’”
For dogs with behavioral problems, training for the animal can help, along with guidance for the dog’s human companion.
“We talk about consistent owner interactions so that the owner has a better relationship with the dog,” says Bain. “We talk about desensitization and counter-conditioning—a gradual re-exposure to the trigger that causes the dog to be stressed, but at a really low level.”
“Dogs are only going to do what works for them,” says Wildesen. “You must make something else work better.” In the case of a dog that shies away from contact for fear of being hit, Wildesen suggests lowering your hand over the dog’s head with a treat in it and dropping the treat. “It teaches them something good is coming when a hand comes toward them.”
To avoid stressing a resident cat, introduce a new feline gradually—it can take a month or longer. Krieger says newcomers should first be “confined to one room where they feel safe and secure” before meeting other cats in the household. (A cat tree can add vertical territory for the cats to claim.) Adding more felines should mean adding enough litter boxes to make everyone happy; one rule of thumb is a box for every cat plus an extra one—and the boxes should all be kept clean.
Krieger says cats crave consistency: “The cat is fed at the same time every day, played with the same time every day.” Some cats respond well to clicker training, in which the animal learns to associate a specific action (such as making a sound) with a treat (either food or petting) for avoiding bad behaviors or learning tricks such as shaking hands or sitting up.
For cats with separation anxiety, leaving them your scent may help. One of Krieger’s clients rubs small cloths on her body, puts each in a plastic bag, and asks the sitter to put one out each day she’s away. Krieger says such scented cloths can be rubbed on a cat coming back from a vet visit “so the other cat will recognize its housemate.”
After a visit to her veterinarian, Cantwell contacted Krieger for help with Boopie. As a result, she implemented changes such as the addition of a seven-foot cat tower and specific toys.
Cantwell says Boopie is now “doing great.” While he has urinary tract problems that lead to the rare out-of-box accident, “the howling stopped, the attacking of the other cat has stopped, and it’s all because we have upgraded our experience here in terms of quality of life.”
What’s more, “the fact that Marilyn was able to give us tools that would help all of the cats, that was an unexpected outcome. I was just trying to fix Boopie but it has helped the entire feline family,” says Cantwell, who has used the techniques she learned from Krieger in her own efforts to help socialize feral cats.
The best way to help your pet overcome stress is to see the world through his or her eyes. McCutcheon says, “Empathizing is the thing, trying to figure out how that pet feels.”
Calming Jittery Kitties
Any animal (or human, for that matter) can react to sudden noises or motions by becoming startled. But cats, with their highly sensitive hearing, are particularly prone to a heightened startle reflex. “Anxious cats can frighten easily,” says Marilyn Krieger. “Although one traumatic event sometimes initially triggers the response, some cats will react fearfully to subsequent, less intense incidents.”
A number of therapies can help cats with hair-trigger startle responses. Among them are:
Catnip—About two-thirds of cats are prone to this herb’s euphoric effects, which are caused by a substance called nepetalactone that appears to reduce inhibition. The non-addictive kitty high lasts about 15 minutes, with no side effects. However, overuse can make your cat resistant to catnip.
Rescue Remedy for Pets—This is a member of the Bach Flower family of remedies, which are designed to corrects emotional imbalances. It helps calm both dogs and cats during travel, thunderstorms and other anxiety-promoting situations; does not contain alcohol.
Feliway—This product replicates the pheromone released by cats who are happy and at ease in their environment. Unlike catnip and Rescue Remedy, it’s meant to be used over time; available in electric diffuser, spray and wipe forms.