By Adrienne W. Fawcett
There’s no question about it: Modern life is stressful. If it’s not the job, it’s the kids or the traffic or the war or the cleanliness of spinach. Sometimes grief, depression, and life’s uncanny ability to throw curveballs are overwhelming and there’s nothing to do but cry, run, or chop a few onions into fine dices. But what happens to pets when their guardians are stressed out? Unfortunately, many pets take on the weight of their human’s world.
Dogs and cats can absorb their humans’ stress and express it in myriad ways: by barking or meowing excessively, panting out of control, hiding, and urinating or defecating in the house. They also can become fearful, aggressive, and territorial, so much so that they might bite humans or other animals.
“People are usually receptive to hearing that their pet is stressed. I don’t say, ‘It’s because you’re stressed,’ but sometimes it is,” says Carol Siegrist, a trainer and behavior consultant to the Philadelphia SPCA as well as a certified professional dog trainer in private practice. Siegrist makes her living training dogs, but sometimes she feels like a therapist for humans.
“People come in with their own problems, and they think I’m the person to talk to. They come because they’re having trouble with their pet, but then they start realizing their pet is responding to them,” she says.
Many people believe pets understand human emotions—that their dogs and cats feel hurt when they’re hurt or angry when they’re angry. But the truth is dogs respond to body language, tone of voice, and scent rather than an intuition about what their companions are feeling inside. Though cats are more independent than dogs, they notice changes and feel tension, too. When a human comes home despondent over a lost job or broken heart, for example, pets don’t understand the nuances of the pain. But they’ll notice the slumped shoulders; they’ll hear the car door slam; they’ll miss their regular pat behind the ears or the stroll into town.
“When they say that dog is man’s best friend, they’re pretty accurate,” says Jeff Green, an obedience trainer in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “It’s just their nature. Sometimes the feelings are good, sometimes they’re bad. But either way, dogs mirror our behavior.”
As pack animals whose lives rely on the stability of their leader, dogs are especially sensitive to stress. If the pack leader is unstable—for whatever reason—dogs can feel insecure and uncomfortable. They will hide, shake, or pant uncontrollably. Sometimes, when humans yell at each other, dogs start barking uncontrollably. Why wouldn’t they? Yelling sounds like barking to them.
In addition to mirroring our stress, they can also respond to it in ways that seem loving. When both of their mothers died within two weeks of each other, Green and his wife were understandably depressed. But they never felt alone, because their four Border Collies offered constant comfort. “They followed us around the house, initiated play more, initiated affection,” he says. “They’d put their heads on our knees when we were just sitting on the couch feeling sad. They’d come up and sit right next to us with their tongues hanging out. It was stressful to them—they knew we were upset—and they tried to help us.”
In nudging the Greens to return to their usual confident style of leadership, the dogs were acting on their own behalf. But for grieving humans, this can be a wonderful thing.
Cats also can pick up on negative emotions. When human companions are stressed out, “cats might become more aggressive or jumpier,” Siegrist says. “Some might start urinating outside of the litter box, but that’s usually a sign of a physical problem and not stress. Some cats may be quick to react to something by biting or becoming more aggressive, just like dogs do. Or you might see a lot of panting, which indicates a cat is very, very stressed.” Some felines deal with stress by disappearing for long periods, indoors or out.
The best way to help a stressed-out pet is to eliminate the stress factor. For example, if a dog feels stress in the presence of other canines, it may make sense to avoid the dog park. If a cat is stressed because he’s left alone all day, it helps to provide a small, cozy nest where he can feel secure and to give him more attention whenever possible. But what if a pet is stressed because her human companion is depressed or tightly wound? Turns out the best medicine for the pet is also best for the human.
“I’d say it’s a good idea to get out of your funk and spend quality time with your dog,” Green says. “Play Frisbee or chase, go for a walk—do anything that will get the dog’s attention and keep him happy, anything to distract him from his down mood.”
One component to helping a stressed-out dog is to build up her confidence in her leader. This can be done by introducing—or reintroducing—foundation exercises and obedience courses through positive training. To help their dog heal, humans should make her heel.
“There’s a way to be a leader in a really positive way, and this is really important with a stressed-out dog,” Siegrist says. “It’s not good to be a [totalitarian] kind of leader. You want your dog to defer to you when he’s feeling stressed out or upset, so you can get that dog to know he can trust you to get him out of stressful situations.”
Cats that are stressed out often need play time with their human companions and extra affection.
When human life gets heavy, spending extra time with pets can seem like just another thing on the ever-growing to-do list. But working with pets—training them, playing with them, petting them—reduces stress levels in humans. Many studies show people with pets live longer, healthier lives than those who don’t have companion animals at home. And once humans start seeing progress in their companion pets, they often realize they’re the ones who are benefiting more.