Anxiety in Dogs: Is Stress Affecting Your Pet?
We’ve all had restless night’s where the worries of the day have left us unable to relax — but did you know dogs can also be kept awake due to stress? According to a recent study, dogs suffer a worse sleep if they have experienced negative interactions and behaviour before laying down to rest. Researchers also discovered that canines that enjoyed more positive experiences managed to sleep more soundly than those that didn’t.
Both dogs and human require adequate sleep to ensure physical and mental health, so how can you make sure your dog is free of stress for a better life?
What did the canine study show us?
Last year, a three-hour experiment was conducted by scientists in Hungary, involving a mix of 16 dogs, including a Labrador Retriever and Shetland Sheepdog among several other breeds. The findings were published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B and showed that canines suffer a worse night’s sleep when they feel stressed. How did the researchers come to this conclusion? The method used for this examination involved subjecting some dogs to ‘positive’ experiences before sleeping, and others to ‘negative’ experiences prior to resting (all dogs were subjected to both types of experiences). After monitoring the sleeping brainwaves of the canines, researchers concluded that anxiety plays a part in the ability of a dog to relax and rest.
Of course, the scientists had to decide what constituted a ‘good’ experience for a pooch first, and they determined that this would involve petting, attention and games — while a ‘bad’ experience would be filled with isolation from their owner and being approached menacingly. Typically, dogs that received a ‘good’ experience managed around an hour of deep, non-REM sleep. Conversely, ‘bad’ experiences caused the dogs to have only around 40-50 minutes of non-REM sleep.
How do we determine what REM is and how is it beneficial? REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the more active, lighter resting stage consisting of increased heart rate and quicker breathing, while non-REM is a deeper sleeping stage that provides optimum rest and more regular breathing and heart rates. Although REM sleep takes up around one quarter of overall sleep time in adult humans, it’s important that we achieve the non-REM stage in order to get what we’d refer to as a ‘decent night’s sleep’, free of tossing and turning.
What did researchers say about the outcome of the study?
The lead researcher, Dr. Anna Kis, had much to say about the result of this 2017 experiment. She commented: “We found dogs get less deep sleep after a negative experience. It suggests that, just like humans have a bad night’s sleep after a difficult day, dogs may have a similar problem.”
With regard to the dogs that received ‘bad’ experiences, there was another interesting outcome that scientists noticed: these canines tended to fall asleep much faster than the dogs that had received a more pleasant pre-sleep time. Dr. Kis, explained: “In humans, stress causes difficulty falling asleep, whereas dogs fall asleep more quickly — we think as a protective measure to remove themselves from the stressful environment.”
Overall, each dog — regardless of experience — appeared to rest for roughly the same amount of time, so you may ask: what’s the issue? It is the inability for ‘stressed’ dogs to enter that vital non-REM stage that highlights how negative experiences can adversely affect their emotional state, and could impact on their mental and physical health if left untreated.
Making sure you can tell when your dog is stressed
If you have a hunch that your dog is feeling anxiety, you should act quickly. However, determining whether this is the case can be tricky. As they can’t tell you what’s on their mind, keep your eye out for the following stress indicators:
Barking to excess could be your pet’s way of telling you that they’re stressed about something.
Are they panting randomly and for no reason? If their ears are back and low on their head, there could be an issue.
Unless they’ve just had their food or taken a drink, licking their nose could also be a sign of anxiety.
Unusual destructive behaviour
Shredding shoes, gnawing at furniture or tearing clothes are also indicators that your dog might be worrying.
Moulting and shedding fur to excess
Is there more fur than usual around the house? Your pet might have a stress-related problem.
Lack of sleep is also an indicator of stress. So, keep an eye on how much your dog yawns throughout the day.
Helping to take the stress away
Even making simple changes — like increasing the amount of walks they have and changing their diets to include natural dog food — can make a big difference in your dog’s happiness and ability to relax. Enduring constantly poor sleep could stop your dog ‘consolidating memories’ and ‘dealing with their emotions’, according to Dr. Kis. As a result, they may become more aggressive, which is not ideal for any owner.
“We know that positive interactions with our pets are important for their overall health and welfare,” said senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, Gudrun Ravetz — so how can you alleviate stress to help your dog?
Up the amount of exercise they receive
Exercise is essential for mental and physical health — as well as their socialising capability. If your dog is stressed, extend your walk time by 10 or 15 minutes, or head into the garden once a day to play fetch. Hydrotherapy is a great way to tire out your anxious dog and an excellent stress booster — if your dog actually enjoys the water.
Enhance their diets
What is your dog eating? Is it proper dog food at regular intervals, or do you treat them to your snacks now and then? Make changes, after checking with your dog’s vet, as human treats can be harmful to canines.
We all need to interact with others to maintain good mental and emotional health, and dogs are no different. While some dogs handle being alone better than others, some suffer from separation anxiety which causes stress and panic. If you can, book them into a doggy day care centre or ask if a family member or friend can dog-sit for an hour or two to break up their day.
Form a routine
Even disobedient dogs thrive on rules and routines. If your dog knows roughly what time you go to work and come home, it’ll make them feel calmer — so try to stick to a regular pattern of going out and returning. This isn’t always possible, but try and maintain some consistency to keep your dog from worrying.
Bad atmospheres in the home will also cause your dog to stress and affect their sleep, so try to keep negative vibes to a minimum.