Stress can be highly infectious within a species, and it’s also thought pets may mirror our mental state. Humans and dogs, for example, have been living together for 15,000 years, sharing a unique relationship and bond. Animals experience positive and negative emotions just like us, such as pleasure, comfort, fear, and anxiety. It’s thought that pets may synchronise their stress levels with those of their owners.

Christmas can be a time of both great pleasure but also potential stress. There is a wealth of evidence outside the scope of this blog of the benefits of stress reduction, but you may not have considered that if we are less stressed, it’s likely to impact our pets in a positive way. Perhaps an extra incentive? We know that failing to provide basic care like food and shelter isn’t acceptable, but we often overlook how our mental states can also negatively impact their welfare.

How do we know pets are affected by us?

A recent study looked at dog and owner personalities, measuring the stress hormone cortisol in the hair of these dogs and owners over a year. Hair cortisol measures long-term trends in stress levels, as hair grows slowly (about 1cm a month) and absorbs circulating cortisol. There was a significant correlation between human and dog cortisol levels across the year.

This correlation was not influenced by dog activity levels or dog personality but was influenced by owner personality. So, owners with higher stress levels tended to have dogs with higher stress levels too. Female dogs correlated more. They produce more oxytocin (a feel-good, bonding hormone) that also causes corresponding increases in human oxytocin. This may explain the link. 

Cats are sympathetic creatures and seem to sense stress in their owners. Whether their owner is sick, depressed, stressed out about finances or a failed relationship, cats seem to feel stress when their owners feel stress. A US study found that cats can read human facial expressions, and they learn this ability over time. Smiling increased the chance of “positive” behaviours such as purring, rubbing, or sitting on their owner’s lap and spending time together.  

There is limited research in cats in this area. In contrast, scientists have known for years that dogs respond differently to happy and angry faces, partly because their responses are more obvious than in cats. A 2011 study showed dogs actively avoid someone who appears angry, rather than just changing their body language.

How can we know if our pet is stressed?

Stress or anxiety in dogs, cats and other pets may manifest in many ways. 

Acutely stressed pets may have dilated pupils, seem tense or alert, have raised hackles and flat ears, or a lowered tail. Dogs may yawn, sniff, or drool. Eventually dogs and cats may show overt aggression. 

In the longer-term, some pets may urinate or defecate in inappropriate places, or become vocal or aggressive. More subtly, they may eat less, groom more (or less), become less active or sociable, or conversely clingier. 

Physically, some pets can suffer with diarrhoea, colitis, or urinary issues. Stress can affect the immune system, with many knock-on effects and has been shown to be a contributing or aggravating factor in gastrointestinal diseases, dermatologic conditions, respiratory and cardiac conditions, and behavioural disorders. Stress is linked in cats to a potentially life-threatening bladder condition, Feline Idiopathic Cystitis (FIC).

What can we do to help?

So firstly (but beyond the scope of today’s blog) we need to take a good look at ourselves, taking steps to remedy our own stress, creating a happier household for everyone. 

The mood of the house will affect your pet. 

Confrontation, noise and arguments can cause as much stress for our pets as it does for us, so try and have a peaceful, low volume Christmas.

Pets tend not to like changes in environment or routine.

However, change is inevitable at Christmas time. The new decorations, trees and smells can all cause stress for our pets. In more ‘normal’ years pets may be left on their own more while their owners are engaged in social events. This year they may get more company than they are used to. While people are off work, dogs may get taken on more walks. The key is to consider them when changing routine by trying to keep their routine as consistent as possible. 

Show your pet love and affection during this time but don’t force them into being sociable. 

Allow them to hide away if they want. Perhaps create a doggy den, where they can feel safe and secure, with familiar smells. Cats like to escape, so provide plenty of cosy hideaways options. Some cats like to be high up, so consider creating a space high up in your living areas so your cat can choose to be part of Christmas if they wish, while feeling safe. They may also be less tempted to find their own high places by climbing the tree, or your new curtains!

Using plug-ins containing pheromones 

These airborne hormones can have a calming and soothing effect. This helps pets acclimatise to anything that can be viewed (by the pet) as a disruption of the normal routine such as Christmas, a new home, or a new baby. There are many on the market, such as Adaptil for dogs, and Feliway for cats. These need to be in place as soon as possible to have maximum effect. 

If your pet’s stress is causing you concern, consider a trip to your vet for a check-up and to determine whether more specific measures could help your pet. They may be able to recommend other potential options, both natural and prescription based. 

You might not be able to eliminate all stressors for you or your pet this Christmas but considering the effect on them is a start. Not only would you be happier with a more harmonious household this Christmas, but so would your pet.