Situations That Can Cause Stress in Pets — and Steps You Can Take to Prevent Them

Pets are big parts of our lives, and a growing number of people consider their pets to be family. According to the 2017-2018 American Pet Products Survey, 68 percent of households in the U.S. have pets, with 60.2 million having dogs, and 47.1 million having cats. With our pets being such a large part of our lives, we often place them into situations that could potentially make them uncomfortable. At times it’s something simple like a car ride or being in a new environment, but the way we interact with our pets can also cause them unnecessary stress.

According to the ASPCA’s tips for reading canine body language, symptoms of stress can include a wide-eyed looked referred to as “whale eye,” pulled back lips or licking their lips, ear movement, a lowered tail, rapid panting, stiff body posture, or turning their head away. Nervous or stressed pets might also pace, suffer from digestive upset, or refuse to eat or drink. Each pet is different, so it’s important for us to recognize these signals, as well as common situations that can make pets uncomfortable.
Invading a Pet’s Personal Space

Being in new situations can be stressful for our pets, especially cats. There are new noises, smells, people, and often a change in the routines they’re accustomed to at home. You can help them adjust to their new surroundings by placing their bed, food and water bowls, litter box, and toys (make sure these are not freshly-washed and have your animal’s scent on them) in a quiet closed-off space like a bathroom or bedroom, allowing them to explore the new surroundings gradually on their own, and by slowly introducing them to new people and pets so as not to overwhelm them. To ease your pet into meeting new people and animals, start by letting them smell a personal belonging of the new individual, like a pair of eyeglasses, clothing, or blanket, and have any new animals smell a belonging of your pet. This “scent-swapping” can help reduce tension when the animals interact. You can also spritz calming spray around the new environment and on their collars to help ease tension.

An increase in the number of pet-friendly businesses means our pets are now accompanying us when we go to the store or out to eat with our friends. And while this is fun (and convenient) for us to have our pets with us all the time, these situations can be overwhelming for some pets.

The first time you bring your pet out with you, keep the trip short and watch their body language to see how they’re reacting to the situation. If they start to act agitated or stressed, take them home as soon as possible. It might take a few tries for your pets to adjust, but if they’re anxious every time you bring them into a crowded situation, you’ll need to continue working with them until they learn how to relax in these situations. Remember that some pets might never adjust, so in those cases, it’s best to leave them home where they can relax. For animals who are timid or react defensively in crowded environments, an enclosed pet stroller with their favorite blanket can provide them with security and comfort while they become more socialized and accustomed to new outdoor environments.

Taking a Ride in the Car
Some pets break into a frenzy of excitement as soon as they hear the words “car ride,” while others tremble or try to run away the moment you reach for their travel carrier or try to place them in the car — and then for the entire ride, they incessantly bark, meow, or cry. It’s a rather frustrating experience for pet guardians, but it’s even worse for our pets.
To make traveling with pets more relaxing, try a natural calming supplement, like Bach’s Rescue Remedy for Pets or homemade spray to help your pet relax. And since loud noises can make anxiety worse, keep the music volume at a reasonable level or listen to a podcast while driving. You can also purchase CDs of calming music created especially for pets.
And to eliminate negative reactions to pet carriers and car seats, start leaving the carrier out at all times to be used as a cozy bed at home. Put your animal’s blankets and toys in there and start feeding them their favorite treats and meals in the carrier so they begin to associate positive activities with the carrier, which will then make it much easier to get them in the carrier when needed. Training your pet to be comfortable in a carrier is essential, as it will save your pet’s life in the case of an emergency, such as in a fire or if your pet becomes ill or injured and requires immediate medical attention.

Dealing With Loud Noises and Situations
A fear of thunderstorms and fireworks is a common issue for pets, but other noises like construction, loud vehicles, and even the sound of a vacuum or appliance running can send some pets into hiding. The key here is patience. Never force pets to face their fears. Instead, do what you can to comfort them, and then work help them overcome their fears.
A kennel with a soft blanket inside provides a safe place for them to hide out, and you can provide additional comfort by using therapy wraps such as Thunder Shirts, and by spraying a calming spray inside the kennel. A startled pet is a flight risk, so it’s always best to keep your pet home and indoors during fireworks, storms and loud events like parades. Keep windows closed and turn on a television, radio or sound machine to drown out noise.
Methods like counter-conditioning can also help pets overcome noise phobias. This works by helping pets associate something they don’t like with something positive, such as a treat or favorite puzzle toy. Just remember that helping a pet overcome noise phobias takes time and should never be rushed. And if the problem is severe, you can enlist the help of a positive-reinforcement trainer or behaviorist.

Pets are pretty good about letting us know when they are uncomfortable. Get to know your pet’s stress signals, as well as those that are typical for dogs and cats, to help keep your pets comfortable and content.