How often do we ask our pets how they’re feeling? As pet parents, probably quite a lot! But do we really stop to consider our furry friends’ mental health?
Just like humans, it can often be easier to spot the signs of physical health than the signs that your pet is feeling a little blue.
Our research into pet owners who bought or rescued their dog during lockdown, found that 43% of Brits* say that their dog has improved their mental health. Which is not surprising.
But it’s possible that we could be overlooking our pets during all these extra sofa cuddles, and not realising that they too might be suffering from mental pressures.
What is pet mental health?
We asked Itch Panellist and Animal Welfare and Behaviour expert, Dr Lauren Finka, to explain exactly what pet mental health is:
“Pet mental health relates to your pets’ current psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Their mental health will be impacted by both their physical health and emotions, and will determine the way they feel about themselves and the world.”
Poor mental health in our pets can manifest itself in everything from stress to anxiety. As pet wellness experts, we’re here to lift the lid on pet mental health.
What sort of things can affect my pet’s mental health?
It seems that some animals are more susceptible to stress and anxiety.
This may be linked to genetics, for example, was their mother nervous? It could also be linked to a traumatic event in their life, or poor socialisation when they were pups.
But stress in our pets can also be caused by regular ‘life’ situations. Here are some of the common stress triggers in pets:
- New homes or places
- Strange pets or animals in their space
- Strangers or new people
- Loud noises
Zoe Costigan, in-house Vet at Itch, explains more:
“There are a wide range of situations and events that can stress your pet. There’s the obvious major events, such as a house move or a new baby coming home, or even a bereavement in the family. But have you considered things to a lesser extent, such as a change to your pet’s routine?”
“For example, if you’ve got a new job. Then there’s the seemingly mild things to us such as opening an umbrella or a child screaming, or being left alone.
These are all potential stresses for your pet if they’ve never come across them before.”
There is a wide spectrum of the level of stress that our pets can experience, ranging from the very mild to the very severe. Ideally, we want to recognise the animals that are mildly stressed, so that it does not escalate to be a serious problem.
Some of the most common triggers could be overwhelming for anyone, so if you’re experiencing some major life changes don’t forget to show your pet a little bit of reassurance and extra affection.
How can I spot the signs of stress in my pet?
Itch Panellist and Dog Trainer and Behaviourist, Oli Juste, gives 5 common signs to look out for in your dog:
- Drooling. This often happens in the car if the dog is uncomfortable and stressed or also when left alone at home.
- Pacing. Often seen when experiencing separation related problems.
- Nose licking. Making their sponge-like-nose wet with their tongue allows dogs to collect more molecules from the air. These molecules will go through their wonderfully well-designed nose (they have 300 million olfactory receptors, humans only have six million), and will be processed in their brain where the part responsible to analyse smells is 40 times greater than ours. If the dog is unsure about a certain situation, person, or environment they will want to collect as much info as possible, hence the nose lick.
- Whale eye. Like a moon crescent at the corner of the dog’s eye. People often call it ‘side eye’ and find this rather funny. It should be taken seriously.
- Shaking. This often happens after a situation that a dog has found stressful, such as putting a harness or coat on, or perhaps after brushing.
Oli also added:
“There are also some less obvious signs of stress that dog owners should be aware of.
These could be digging (in the garden or on the soda), destroying things, such as furniture or walls, tail chasing, or excessive barking. All of these could be signs that your dog is not mentally or physically stimulated enough.”
When it comes to their health, cats can be notorious masters of deception. So we asked Dr Lauren Finka to help us spot the signs that something isn’t quite right with your puss:
- Hiding. Does your cat spend a lot of their day hiding or in an elevated location, such as under the bed or on top of a shelf or wardrobe?
- Body language. Pay attention to your cat’s behaviour and body language. Do they look crouched, hunched or tense? Do they startle easily? Are their pupils wide and dilated? Are their ears flattened or rotated?
- Change in routine. Look for any changes in their routines. Does your cat suddenly start avoiding certain areas of the house? Perhaps at certain times of the day? Are they spending more or less time outside or going out at different times to usual? Are they less keen to interact with people
- Maintenance. Look for any changes in their general ‘maintenance behaviours’ – have they started eating, drinking, sleeping and grooming more or less often? Or at different times of the day?Toileting. Observe their toileting behaviours. Are they suddenly toileting in the home rather than outside? Or have they started going outside of the litter tray?
What can I do to relieve stress in my dog?
If you’ve spotted some of the signs above and think your dog could be struggling, here’s Oli’s advice on what to do:
“Firstly, work out what your dog is actually feeling. Is it anxiety, fear, frustration? It’s important to understand your dog’s emotional state if you truly want to help, as you’ll need to help them cope with that feeling.
Secondly, try to find out what’s causing this negative emotion. We may be able to remove these triggers or cleverly re-arrange them to help your dog. My favourite technique is called ‘counterconditioning’, we’ll get the dog to start associating positive actions with the triggers or stimulus. Unfortunately it’s never a case where one technique fits all, but a dog behaviourist can help you with some of these techniques.
Finally, if the mammal brain is cognitively engaged, it doesn’t process stress and anxiety.
So, taking the time to train your dog and teach them new tricks, or investing in things like food dispensing toys, will keep them mentally active and able to learn new strategies for dealing with stress & anxiety.”
What can I do to relieve stress in my cat?
Lauren gives some advice on what to do if your cat’s emotional wellbeing needs some attention:
“After ruling out medical issues as being a cause (i.e. a trip to the vets), one of the most important things you can do is make sure you provide your cat with a safe, calm and predictable environment.
Allocate them a quiet room in the home or space within a room where they can go and hide and chill out. This space should come with a virtual ‘do not disturb’ sign on it – when your cat goes there, they should be left alone.”
What can Itch do to help?
As with any condition, prevention is better than cure.
If you do have a major life event coming up, or a change in routine on the horizon, Itch has a ‘Calming’ range of treats and supplements available, all containing a special blend of ingredients designed to encourage relaxation.
Available exclusively for members of the Itch Pack, sign-up or log in to your account to add a pack today.