Helping Your Dog or Cat Chill May Add Years to their Lives

Can fear, anxiety, and stress be stealing precious heartbeats from your beloved pet at home?

That’s the theory being studied by Dr. Robert Hamlin, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM. His work is examining the idea that stress, especially when it triggers the body’s fight or flee “sympathetic storm” mechanism, not only affects the quality of your pet’s life but may even reduce the length of your pet’s life.

Hamlin’s research is focusing primarily on stress and anxiety experienced by pets in veterinary clinics, but environmental factors experienced during your pets’ day to day lives are a source of stress as well.  When veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker first encountered Dr. Hamlin’s words, he was shocked. He had worked for almost a decade on the concepts of the Fear Free practice and the Fear Free home. He sensed the damage fear and stress can do to the quality of the pet’s life, “but never, in my wildest imagination,” he says, “did I think that our work could actually cause pets to live longer.”

Living longer is part of Dr. Hamlin’s theory. He invites his Ohio State University veterinary students to consider the age of the oldest living person — 126 years. Assuming that’s as old as the molecular structure of humans can go, he asks them to consider what genetic and environmental factors prevent others from reaching that limit. Many of those factors can’t be controlled, but some can — and stress, he thinks science will show, is one of them.

If you, or your pet, are endowed at birth with a finite number of heartbeats, it makes sense not to burn them on undue stress or in the cascade of heart racing effects of a fight or flee response. So, does it follow that you and your cat or dog should just take up residence on the couch to preserve as many heartbeats as possible?

No. A healthy heart, Dr. Hamlin says, will actually need fewer beats when the heart is at rest — which is most of the time — so with exercise you will likely experience a net saving despite the beats you burn during exercise. To that end, the 84-year-old rides his bicycle one hour every day.

So, exercise is recommended, but unnecessary stress is not. For example, people who prevent their dogs from smelling the butts of other dogs are creating ongoing stress. ”We change a dog’s behavior for our comfort, not the dog’s,” he says. Any difficulties we create on defecation or urination, beyond what’s necessary to keep the animal as a pet, also create ongoing stress.

Triggering the sympathetic storm is exponentially worse, he thinks. Thunderstorms and fireworks are two common examples of such triggers. The only use for this hard-wired systemic reaction, he says, should actually be to fight or to flee. Otherwise, both the quality of life and the length of life are likely being challenged when the pet experiences it.

If you want to reduce environmental stress on your pets and conserve their heartbeats, Dr. Becker offers these suggestions:

For Dogs:

  • Give dogs a comfortable place to rest free from competition with other pets. A kennel or crate is a great choice.
  • Don’t use heavy scents or fragrances in the house. This includes burning scented candles and sprays.
  • Don’t use harsh cleaning products, such as products with bleach, that can not only burn a dog’s sensitive nose but temporarily destroy olfactory neurons and cause pets to become “nose-blind.”
  • Severely limit the playing of loud music or other loud noises (lawn mowers, tools, video games etc.) around pets.
  • Give your canine kids lots of physical touch.
  • Don’t ignore their fear, anxiety, and stress from things such as thunderstorms, fireworks, and separation anxiety. Instead work with your local veterinarian to take steps to prevent or reduce experiences that trigger fear, anxiety, and stress in your pet, and treat it when it arises.
  • Make liberal use of veterinary-approved pheromone sprays and other products.

For Cats:

  • Cats don’t need to live in Colorado or Oregon to get high. Nothing pleases a cat more than taking a cat nap up high on a perch, or climbing a tree where they can see the world but feel safe.
  • Put their toilets — aka litter boxes — in a bright location with escape routes, and with enough choices in different spots (at least one more litter box than number of cats) so they can’t be bullied just for answering nature’s call.
  • Greatly reduce or eliminate the use of heavy fragrances.
  • Use gentle cleaning products that don’t cause chemical pollution.
  • Use pheromone products, such as Feliway Multicat, that are clinically proven to give the clowder (formal name for a group of cats) the feeling of Kumbaya.
  • Touch your cats in places they like to have contact — lips, hairless areas above eyes, base of the ears, where the head and neck meet, base of the tail. Avoid the belly unless you want to film a YouTube slasher flick.
  • If adopting another pet, make sure introductions are carefully planned and designed to maximize security and minimize anxiety and stress.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT