When your dog is stressed out, it can show up in mysterious — and sometimes surprising — ways. You may mistake yawning for sleepiness or panting for excitement, but even these simple, everyday actions could be clues that your dog is feeling anxious.
Any time you notice a change in your dog’s behavior, it could indicate something isn’t quite right. But when it comes to stress and your pet, sometimes those signals can be hard to decode. The more you know about the different ways stress can affect your dog, the better you can manage your pet’s symptoms and get him back in balance.
Understanding Your Stressed Out Dog
Any disruption in your dog’s daily routine can lead to stress and anxiety, whether it’s moving to a new home or welcoming a new baby or pet to the family. For example, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many people to throw their regular schedules out the window. While some dogs may be getting too much attention from pet parents who are working from home, others may find themselves competing against other household pets for their owners’ attention. And as more families return to work and school, dogs have to cope with yet another shift in routine.
“In many respects, dogs are like young children in that routine is important to them,” explains Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a certified veterinary behaviorist and professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. “With the pandemic forcing people to be home, it can sometimes be too much of a good thing. It can also be problematic when the schedule changes back and the constant comfort is no longer there. Behaviorists are very concerned about an increase in separation anxiety when life gets somewhat back to normal.”
Other triggers of stress in dogs may include loud noises, such as thunderstorms and fireworks, unfamiliar or unpleasant odors, and encounters with unfamiliar people or pets. Your own stress levels may also influence your dog’s stress load. A 2019 study suggests that “dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress level of their owners.” (1)
4 Surprising Signs of Stress in Dogs
Common signs of stress in dogs include pacing, panting, vocalizing, and seeking out their owner’s attention, says Dr. Wailani Sung, a certified veterinary behaviorist for the San Francisco SPCA. However, dogs may also show stress in unusual, surprising, or unexpected ways. “The dogs are exhibiting displacement behavior,” Sung explains. “They are stressed and need an outlet for their nervous energy, and it may manifest in unusual activity or behavior.”
Here’s why it’s so important to be aware of signs that your dog is stressed, according to Beaver. If your dog’s symptoms go unnoticed or unmanaged, stress can lead to negative side effects and other health problems. “Stress has physical, medical, and behavioral consequences in animals just as in people,” Beaver says. “The immune system does not work as well when the animal is chronically stressed, and that stress can be expressed outwardly as a behavior change, such as the development of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
Here are some other potential signs of stress in dogs you should watch out for:
Upset Stomach and Vomiting
When a dog is stressed out, the body releases a cascade of activity through the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis—two key players in the stress response, Sung explains. Once the stress-response system is activated, the stomach may take too long to empty. This delay may cause a loss of appetite and other gastrointestinal symptoms in dogs. “If [food] sits in the stomach for too long, it may cause an upset stomach and the dog may respond by vomiting,” Sung says. If your dog is vomiting, it’s best to contact your veterinarian. Depending on the circumstances, your veterinarian may suggest letting the stomach rest for a few hours and then sticking to a bland diet. If your dog continues to vomit and won’t eat, or if your veterinarian feels there may be something more serious going on, you’ll need to schedule a visit to the clinic for an in-person exam.
According to Sung, stress can also accelerate the rate at which food moves through the intestines, which can lead to diarrhea in dogs. As with vomiting, feeding a bland diet may be helpful for dogs with mild cases of diarrhea, if your veterinarian recommends it. However, diarrhea can have many other causes, ranging from parasitic infections to food-borne illness, so stress may not necessarily be to blame.
Call your veterinarian if your dog’s diarrhea lasts for more than 24 hours or if you notice blood or mucus in your dog’s stool. “If the problem is extreme, or doesn’t stop within a day or so, it is important to get veterinary help in order to rule out potentially serious health conditions,” Beaver says.
Stress may cause some dogs to engage in compulsive behaviors, such as destructive chewing or ingesting non-food items (see Pica in Dogs). “Some dogs show stress by…chewing on whatever item is nearby and potentially ingesting inedible objects, such as rocks,” Sung says. Other dogs may exhibit excessive scratching or licking. “In some cases, they may lick a particular part of their body raw,” Sung adds. Dogs exhibiting repetitive behaviors may have underlying medical issues, so it’s important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to figure out what’s going on with your pet.
At certain times of the year and especially among certain breeds, coping with excess dog hair is simply one of the challenges of being a pet parent. But if you notice an unexpected shift or increase in how much your dog sheds, those flying furballs could be telling you that your dog is stressed.
What’s more, that symptom points to an exciting new area of study in the field of gut health in pets. According to Beaver, while veterinarians don’t completely understand how stress affects the balance of bacteria in a dog’s gut, they do know that chronic stress changes the bacteria types. “That can result in food not being digested as well or the intestines not being able to absorb important nutrients,” she says. Stress and nutritional deficiencies can also have negative effects on your dog’s skin and fur, such as excessive shedding.
In addition, stress can cause acute inflammation in the intestines, decreased cellular immunity, and increased intestinal permeability, Sung says. These conditions make the gut more susceptible to toxins produced by bacteria. “This could lead to increased risks of infection in the gut,” she says. “The immediate outcome may be diarrhea. The long-term outcome may be chronic intestinal discomfort or inflammation and possibly infections.”
How to Help a Stressed Dog
If you have a stressed out dog, there are some simple steps you can take to help relieve your pet’s symptoms. Identify and avoid your dog’s stressors, if possible, and keep your dog active, physically and mentally, with daily exercise, play sessions, interactive toys, and food puzzles.
Improving your dog’s gut health may also help reduce the stress response. That’s because there is two-way communication between the GI tract and the central nervous system—also known as the gut-brain connection (2). Hundreds of different species of bacteria (both good and bad) and other microorganisms reside in the gut (3). Probiotic supplements can help promote a balanced gut microbiome (4).
Most of all, it’s important to stay patient and try to stick to a daily routine, Beaver says. “Keeping a schedule and being consistent are important for people and for their pets.”