Saturday, December 3, 2011

How to keep your dog or cat stress-free

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We are fast approaching the time of year when life as a dog can become quite stressful! With the festivities due to begin shortly, now is the time to act and prevent stress occurring before it happens.

Keeping Calm

Traditionally there are a handful of techniques used to keep your dog (and cats!) calm during stressful situations such as during the New Year firework displays. These traditional methods can be split into six main categories:

  • Training and behavioural programs
  • Pheromones
  • Dietary management
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Nutraceuticals
  • Others

I'm going to go through each of these categories in a bit more detail and give an example of each type of product.

Training & Behavioural Programs

How your dog responds to stressful situations depends on how they were treated as a puppy during their first 16 weeks of life (also known of the socialisation period).

By introducing your puppy to possible situations in a positive manner, there is the chance that it won't affect them in later life as much. For example, gradually introducing the sound of fireworks to your dog as a puppy may prevent them from being scared of fireworks as an adult.

You can also use this technique when the dog is older - this is called desensitisation. You play a CD such as the Sound Therapy CD (which contains a number of possibly frightening noises for a dog such as fireworks or gunshots) and over time gradually increase the volume of the CD. The dog eventually learns that these noises are not something to be afraid of.


Pheromones are chemicals that enter our body through our nose and activate a special 'pheromone organ' (the vomeronasal organ). It is commonly believed that in humans this organ doesn't work anymore, however in cats and dogs the organ functions to some degree.

Two products which take advantage of this are DAP for Dogs and Feliway for Cats . Each contains a different pheromone (as pheromones are species specific) that act on dogs and cats to produce a calming effect. When the pheromone reaches the vomeronasal organ, a signal is sent to the brain which activates a feeling of calm. With these products it is best to start treatment early - so to prepare for this year's festivities I'd recommend starting treatment now. Pheromones come impregnated in collars or as a plug-in diffuser/spray.

Dietary Management

A natural chemical which has a major role in causing a calm state in dogs and cats is the amino-acid Tryptophan. This fortunately doesn't require any fancy products to produce - just feed your pet a big, protein meal 2 hours before a stressful event, such as your New Year party. Tryptophan is converted by the body to serotonin - a natural calm-inducing chemical. If you don't want the hassle of creating a large protein rich meal before hand, you can simply give your dog or cat one of the many Calming Treats available for purchase online and at most good pet stores. These treats are naturally high in tryptophan.


If you are seriously concerned as to how your pet is going to cope with all the noise, commotion and festivities happening this holiday period, it may be worth asking your vet what pharmaceuticals are available. Four main types are available; anti-depressants, sedatives, amnesic/anxiolytics and beta-blockers. Each have specific pros and cons, but all are subject to side effects of some degree. The amnesic/anxiolytic drugs have one of the more interesting side effects as they can sometimes increase stress! I'd only recommend pharmaceuticals if you know your dog or cat is likely to react severely to the extra stress.


Nutraceuticals are similar in effect to pharamceuticals, although they use all natural ingredients. This has the benefit of having fewer (if any) side effects - although the result may not be as powerful as pharmaceuticals. Nutraceuticals are cheap and quite easy to purchase online, just make sure you are buying a reputable brand such as NaturVet otherwise the product may be of poor quality. Calming nutraceuticals typically work by providing extremely high (yet safe) levels of tryptophan to ensure a maximum conversion ratio to serotonin - the natural bodily chemical which promotes calm.


One new product which a lot of people are raving about is the Thunder Shirt. Thunder shirts calm a dog by wrapping them tightly around the chest. That hugging feeling provides a comforting sensation similar to that of swaddling a child in a blanket.


Whilst pharamceuticals will provide the fastest, most effective relief from stress, it is unlikely that your dog will need to be calmed to such a degree over the festive period. Only if you know your dog really doesn't get on with people, should you consider pharmaceuticals. In most other cases nutraceuticals, pheromones or even a Thundershirt are probably a better choice.
Most pets enjoy the company of other humans, so you may not even have to worry about keeping them calm, but if you are likely to be near a big firework display or if you/ your neighbours intend on putting on your own display it is always better to be prepared.

This post was writing by James Watts, author of VetSci and PetSci, two UK based sites which focus on both the veterinary and household aspects of pet ownership.