Helping Pets Cope With Stress

We use the term “stress” in everyday language to refer to all kinds of unpleasant situations or our reaction to those situations.  My dog is stressed when she has to go to the veterinarian, I get stressed-out when my work piles up, my cat can get distressed if she is out in the sun too long on a hot day. 

In recent years, a large body of evidence has accumulated showing that stress can not only affect the physiological but also the psychological well-being of animals and people. Animals that don’t get enough food, or are exposed to high temperatures can have their welfare compromised, but also dogs repeatedly exposed to thunderstorms, dogs left alone by their owners, or dogs that are repeatedly threatened by other dogs can, under some circumstances, also have poor welfare.

Not all stress is bad. Running an agility course may be stressful to a dog, but he may have adequate ways to cope with the stress. If so, then running the course may be good for the dog providing exercise and mental stimulation which in the long term are advantageous to the dog’s welfare. Stress responses that actually threaten or cause harm are known as distress.  Many people, including scientists themselves, often use the terms stress and distress to mean the same thing, contributing to confusion.

It isn’t the amount of distress that an animal experiences that is the most important, it is the ability of the animal to cope with that distress.  So helping our animals cope with the stressors that all of them face on a daily basis will go far in improving their well-being. Here are some things that can help:

• Social buffering – by providing social support and companionship, from people or other animals, the the negative emotions and distress responses can often be reduced.
• Providing environments where animals have some control over their situation also helps animals to cope.  Providing a safe place where the family dog can get away from the children when they become too much not only helps the dog to cope, but makes things safer for both dog and children.  (For more about creating safe interactions between pets and children, read our article about Supervision.

This isn’t the whole story about stress, of course.  We’ve written a more comprehensive article about the distinctions between stress and stressors, the relationship between distress and negative emotions, such as fear, for members of our Behavior Education Network

We also provide more recommendations on ways to help our animals cope and reduce their distress. (By the way these tips also work to help you and your loved ones cope with your daily distresses as well!)  If you’re not a member of BEN you can join now by going to

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