Living through the pandemic over the last two years has been a stressful, anxiety-inducing time for all of us. UK depression rates have doubled and, along with many other exasperated mental health conditions, are fueling a mental health crisis.
For many of us, our pets have supported our well-being during this time. They can increase opportunities to exercise, get outside, and socialize. Regular walking or playing with pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. Pets can help manage loneliness and depression by giving us companionship.
But, did you realise your furry family members could be hiding an emotional health crisis of their own?
Guide Dogs conducted a survey into mental well-being in our dogs, and the results are concerning;
- 76% of owners surveyed were not aware their pets could suffer from poor mental health
- 64% of owners reported they did not know the signs to look out for.
With a rising pet population and many first time owners, we need to share our knowledge and promote positive mental health for the whole family. Our pets deserve our understanding and care.
How will I know if my pet is stressed?
Recent studies by leading dog and cat charities give us an insight into the mental state of the nation’s pets.
The charity Guide Dogs recently surveyed over 1,000 UK dog owners, recording 74% of dogs exhibited behaviour indicating depression and anxiety.
Canine signs of stress and anxiety can include;
- Loss of appetite
- Toileting in unusual places
- Out of character behaviour
The 2021 ‘Cat Report’ produced by the Cats Protection noted 42% of UK cats are exhibiting at least one of the top six stress behaviours, as shown below.
So, with three-quarters of all dogs, and almost half of our cats (in reality this could be higher as cats hide everything) showing symptoms of distress your pet could very well be one of them!
Can My Pet’s Mental Health Affect Their Physical Health?
Much like humans, the physical health conditions of our pets can manifest from emotional distress. Chronic stress can affect the immune system, digestive system and bladder function of our pets to name but a few.
Overgrooming caused by anxiety can cause skin problems. It is well reported that there is a link between emotional well-being and idiopathic cystitis in cats.
To keep our pets in tip-top condition we need to embrace a whole body preventative care program, both physical and mental.
Top 5 ways to help your downhearted dog
Guide Dogs’ chief scientific officer Dr Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside put it perfectly when she said “It’s an outdated viewpoint to think that dogs just need a walk or two a day to be content,” Our dogs crave mental stimulation and enrichment.
- Puzzle bowls – using a puzzle feed bowl or hiding some food as a doggy treasure hunt can reduce boredom and frustration for your pet. Frustrated dogs will often exhibit unwanted or destructive behaviour, giving them mental stimulation and enrichment such as puzzle-solving helps fulfil their emotional need to hunt and graze. Our vet designed puzzle bowls are ideal, you can also use them as lick mats by smearing wet food onto them, or a treat such as xylitol free peanut butter. The action of licking boosts the release of endorphins (the feel-good chemical) and reduces stress and anxiety. Check out Barney the Labrador having fun with his puzzle feeder here.
- Scent walk – the mental stimulation of a slow expedition with lots of opportunities to sniff is so important for our canine companions. Allow your dog to explore at their own pace and take the lead when choosing a route. Be patient and observe the miracle of your dog’s tracking skills. You may also find their behaviour improves as they build a better picture of who may be around the corner as well as meeting their emotional need to express natural behaviour. This makes for a less frustrated, happier dog!
- Bubble machines – our dogs are like toddlers when it comes to chasing bubbles, you can even find dog specific bacon-scented bubbles. Great fun and exercise too.
- Exercise and interaction – Dogs are socially obligate animals, they crave social engagement from you or other dogs. They are continually gathering information via sniffing, listening, and body language. It is important to provide not just exercise but varied activities e.g. ball games, scent walks, socialising with other dogs where appropriate.
- Downtime and good quality sleep – Make sure your dog has a safe, quiet place to retreat to when they feel the need. Overstimulation can be just as counterproductive as under stimulation for our dogs. Pick a quiet area of the house, with a comfortable bed and a ‘blanket roof’ or covered roof if your dog prefers.
Top 5 Ways To Help Your Forlorn Feline
As one of the first lessons we are taught in feline medicine at vet school is ‘A Cat is NOT a small Dog’ This is one of the many reasons we set up our cat only clinic. SimplyCats are proud to hold a gold standard accreditation from the ISFM as a cat-friendly practice. We provide a veterinary experience focusing on your cat’s needs. Canine needs and rules of medicine often don’t apply in a feline world, even when their homes overlap.
Take a look at our simple changes you can make to benefit your feline family member:
- Move food and water bowls away from litter trays – cats do not like to eat near their toilet, and let’s face it neither would we! This is a natural instinct to avoid the contamination of food and water supplies.
- Have at least one litter tray per cat and one spare – ideally in separate locations. and quiet areas with low footfall.
- Cats live in a 3-D world – There is a very good reason why cats like to find higher ground……… the ability to spot enemies or in fact prey before they are spotted themselves. Your cat may be domesticated but has never forgotten its roots, millions of years worth of tree climbing ancestry. This added bonus of vertical territory greatly expands their ‘home range’ too, not to mention climbing is fun. Try and add some safe climbing areas for your cat, an elevated bed also provides a safe place for 40 winks.
- Enrichment – Lack of enrichment of our domestic cats can cause significant stress, compared to their free-roaming ancestors. Invest in a puzzle feeder or make your own treasure hunt. Here is a short video of Piper fishing from her puzzle bowl. If possible offering access to an outdoor secure run, or in the garden on a harness (if tolerated) may be beneficial and stimulating. Simple measures can be of huge benefit, set aside playtime each day with some of your cat’s favourite toys, rotate toys to avoid boredom. Our two mini tigers, Marmalade and Jasper love to play after school.
- Choose a cat-friendly Clinic – or better still cat-only, but these are few and far between. Such clinics include cat-friendly facilities, no doggy smells, minimising stress through handling techniques, roomy accommodation with access to hiding places and perches, allowing patients to express their natural behaviour and use of calming pheromone diffusers are used throughout the practice.
Cats Protection has some fantastic online resources, including a free e-learning course to better understand your cat’s needs and behaviour. It even includes an interactive house plan where you can check the best location for your cat’s litter trays, bowls and beds.
What Should I Do If I Am Worried About My Pet’s Behaviour?
Remember, mental and physical health are closely linked. Changes in your pet’s usual behaviour could be a reaction to feeling unwell or pain.
If you have any concerns, contact your veterinarian and arrange a health check to first rule out any medical condition. Your clinic team can also offer a range of options to support conditions such as anxiety, noise phobia, cognitive dysfunction and stress ranging from environmental and training advice to pheromone diffusers and medication.
After a clinical examination, and where appropriate your vet can refer you to a certified behaviour therapist, such as those registered with the Animal Behaviour and training council.
If you have found our pointers on improving your pet’s mental well-being helpful please share with your pet-loving friends too. Help us grow our tribe of Petstoreo pet health heroes. 2 Vets: 1 Mission Happy, Healthy Pets!
You may like to browse our collection of vet designed products via our online store. Just follow the links Petstoreo for cats and Petstoreo for dogs. You will find our puzzle bowls, nail clippers and much more.