Dogs, Vet Visits, And Stress
The mind-body connection involving stress and health outcomes is well documented when it comes to humans. Substantial research also exists on the major causes of stress to farmed animals (e.g., husbandry and transport). And further research exists on the consequences of such stress on the animals’ health. But much less is known and quantified in the field of research when it comes to dogs, cats, and other small animals. This is especially true when caretakers need to hospitalize such animals. This can expose the animals to new stressors such as separation from their usual caretaker, a strange environment, or increased noise levels.
This careful review proceeds from the general to the specific. First, it uses a cross-species approach to describe the basic types of stress, what happens in the body when a stress response is triggered, and the types of adverse health effects that can occur. The authors then focus on how stress and stress-related outcomes are typically measured. They focus on the current methods of measuring stress and the consequences of this on dogs. The article concludes with recommendations for further study and data-collection.
The focus of this review is on “psychogenic stress.” This is when the exposure of an individual to psychological or social challenges results in the disruption of their psychological well-being. There is ample evidence from many studies that acute (short-term) and chronic (longer-term) psychogenic stress can result in negative consequences for both human and non-human animals. The physical response to acute stress can often enhance the body’s responsiveness to invaders or injury. But longer-lasting, or chronic, stress tends to weaken the immune system and inflammatory mechanisms for healing.
The authors argue that hospitalized animals may be exposed to both acute and chronic stressors. But they also argue that as an animal’s time in hospital goes on, all stressors stimulate a state of chronic rather than acute stress. Known consequences of chronic stress across species include poor response to vaccination, susceptibility to sepsis, negative effects on wound healing, and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems.
The authors discuss the difficulty of getting accurate measurements of stress. Physiological measurements of stress—including measures of cortisol, salivary immunoglobin (Ig)A, and heart rate change—pose reliability issues across species. Also, such tests require repeated measurements over 20 or more minutes. And this is impractical in most clinical veterinary settings. The authors advocate using these types of measures in trials to validate behavioral markers of stress.
To date, studies on the behavioral indicators of stress in dogs, such as lip licking and paw lifting, have not been able to establish consistent levels across different stressful situations. More progress is evident in the measure of pain in non-verbal beings. There are now validated scales and approaches for detecting acute pain, post-operative pain, and osteoarthritic pain.
The authors close by calling for more investigations into behavioral measures of stress in hospitalized dogs. They argue that we need to equip clinicians with reliable behavioral measures of stress that they can use quickly and effectively—like with the validated pain measures. And until this happens, the authors think it will be difficult for clinicians to identify highly stressed patients and provide appropriate interventions in a timely manner.