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Stress Series: What is stress? (Part 1 of 3)

It’s not always easy to explain the relationship we have, or would like to have, with our dogs. Living with a dog is living with a different species to our own. It is therefore necessary and important to get to know and understand each other. Dogs have an amazing capacity to adapt and have therefore been able to adapt to the extraordinary lives that we have chosen for them. The dog has become part of our society - we expect our dogs to understand and fit perfectly into our environment. This environment often fails to meet their basic needs and is so far removed from their natural way of living that problems occur, such as reactivity and aggression. For many of us the attachment to our dog is irreplaceable – they are always there for us and never judging. Dogs are ‘man's best friend’, but are we his best friend? Just as people can experience stress in their daily lives, so can dogs. Some stress is not a bad thing - in fact it motivates us to get things done. However, as we all know, when there is too much pressure, we start to suffer emotionally and physically. The same is true for dogs. The body cannot tell the difference between 'good' stress (eg. excitement) and 'bad' stress (eg. fear) - stress is neither good nor bad. Stress can be physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, infectious or any combination of these. In nature it is vital for survival that an organism responds optimally, whether to ensure a successful hunt or escape a predator. Remaining in that state, however, is not good and negative consequences will occur. The effects of chronic stress alter our body and brain and can take many months to repair from the time the stress is taken away. When stressed, the body reacts by immediately releasing various stress hormones and these will generally peak after 10 to 15 minutes. It can take the body and brain 3 - 5 days to return to the level they were before the stress occurred. So what happens? The first response is the release of adrenalin - we have all felt that sudden tingling, rush of blood, heart pumping reaction when we have a sudden scare. If the stress remains then the adrenal stress hormone cortisol is released into the system, which can lead to adrenal fatigue (characterised by tiredness and and a weakened immune system). At the same time, various other changes occur which can make us irritable and angry – what people call ‘aggression’ in dogs. The gastric juices can be affected inducing diarrhoea and/or vomiting. The body’s water balance, which is maintained by the Antiduretic Hormone (ADH), goes out of kilter so we sweat, get too hot and need to pee. The blood sugar levels, normally stored in the liver to ‘feed’ the brain a little at all times, are disrupted as everything gets redirected to the muscles. Research has now discovered that continued release of a neuro-hormone which regulates stress (Neuropeptide Y) can damage the immune system. When it comes to our dogs the impact of stress has long been ignored with little research done on the matter. But we now know that stress has the same effect on dogs as it does on humans. Chronic stress creates too high a level of adrenalin. This not only makes our dogs’ senses much more acute and sensitive than usual, it also affects their ability to concentrate. This in turn will cause them to be far more reactive to what is going on around them. If there is occasional stress the body will recover. If stress occurs too often, over time it will not. The body will become chronically stressed and the immune system will be impacted. The dog will get sick. Research is now showing that many illnesses can be traced back to stress, so if our dog is stressed we need to find the underlying cause and resolve it as soon as possible. In Part 2 we will look at the common causes of stress, and how we can recognise it in our dogs. Marina Gates Fleming is a canine consultant working in Belgium.

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