Stress related problems in Dogs

Separation anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders are experienced by most mammalian species.

Dogs in particular have been identified and diagnosed with both the above syndromes which manifest themselves in behaviour such as barking, house soiling and destruction. All these symptoms are associated with signs of stress.

Since dogs have now been included in our family as members and are living indoors as part of the unit, group and social problems relating to there behaviour are becoming more difficult to control, treat and cure.

These stress problems often appear when the animal is not incorporated into the group and is left at home alone or isolated from family members in the home. Many dogs today are far too attached to either one individual or the family as a whole and signs of stress such as barking and destruction are far too frequently seen on meeting with the dog again. This confrontation is usually met with excessive greeting behaviour and the owner appears to be the centre of all the activity.

With animals, three general factors are involved with stress related conditions. They are: breed predisposition, lifestyle and the nervous predisposition of some individuals. We know that the nervous system communicates with other organ systems via neurohormones or other factors such as cytokines, neurotransmitters and neuropeptides. In human patients’ abnormal serotonin metabolism, excess dopaminergic function and abnormal levels of endorphins have been recognised as playing a role in obsessive compulsive disorders. As we extrapolate from human behaviour with treatment we have advanced and learnt a lot about dogs to the point where I am sure everyone has heard of a dog that has had to be sent to the ‘dog psychologist’. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons now has a full directory listing veterinarians and behaviourists that are recognised specialist, whose task it is to analyse a dog’s unacceptable behaviour, modify it and so enable the dog to cope better in a stressful situation.

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Original treatment of all dogs with stress related problems usually consisted of strict behaviour control to a point of cruelty. This unfortunately had to occur due to the Dangerous Dogs Act which could result in a dogs being euthanased if its social behaviour in public and private could not be modified.

With the introduction of sedatives, tranquilizers and antidepressants into the veterinarians list of drug options, a lot of the unacceptable behaviour traits have been modified, eradicated or controlled. The problem with most of these treatment options is that behaviour modification is not introduced at the same time and as a result the dog becomes ‘hooked’ on these drugs, cannot be weaned from them and behaves like a robot for the rest of its like. I know that there are many dogs in the UK, which cannot be taken off some of these potent treatments as it would result in their original problem returning…….so a catch 22 situation. A similar situation surely exists in the human world as well.

Most veterinary behaviourist have been using a new product only available from veterinary surgeons called DAP. The easy to use plug in diffuser is supposedly a natural solution, has no sedative effect and allows the dog to interact and play normally.

This simple treatment option stems from the strong bond that exists between the puppy and its mother, giving it confidence and reassurance. The theory originates from when the puppy first arrives in your home. You get the pup, you provide protection and you become its new ‘mum’. As the dog matures, you start to release your protection and provide the dog with an opportunity to become independent. If this does not occur properly then some degree of over-attachment can occur which will lead to stress related signs as described earlier.

The substance that is used in the diffuser is a pheromone called the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). Canine appeasing pheromone is produced by the bitch 3 – 5 days after the puppy’s birth, from the sebaceous glands in the intermammary cleft. This enhances the attachment between the puppy and its mother providing reassurance and comfort. As the pup grows and develops, it encounters new stimuli which set off emotional reactions, which cause the pup to seek contact with its mother. So DAP acts by stabilising the emotional state of the pup, during its development.

Research has shown that the reassuring properties of canine appeasing pheromone persist even into adulthood, modulating both emotional states and social interaction, ensuring the dog a less stressful reaction throughout its life.

I suggest that anyone who has a dog with behaviour that may be unacceptable at time should consider obtaining one and using it. I would hasten to add that this product has no smell to humans as we do not have the receptors in our nose that respond to it.

As a word of warning, I was chatting to an animal behaviourist last week who said that work is far advanced with Human Appeasing Pheromone (HAP) with inmates in some prisons around the world. I do fear the day when we can buy HAP from our local drug store, as it would certainly change the human race forever.

Guy Liebenberg BSc BVSc MRCVS Cert Vet Acu

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