When We Blow Up: Stress Fest for Pets

Among the many ways domesticated animals have served humans over the millennia is as beasts of burden. A few modern day pets continue to pack a modest load when they accompany us on a trek through the woods.

But there is a much heavier load that pets carry every day: our stress!

A dip in the Dow after London was served a brunch of Brexit and bangers last Thursday sent many people into a tizzy. Uncertainty is a flashpoint for human stress. And it’s those closest to us - human and animal - that are affected by our reactions.

Because our pets know us so well, they are finely tuned into our shifts in mood; their little antenna are up and their radar circling at all times. Dogs especially are prone to pick up the emotional baggage we are carrying around, even when we are not aware of it. This is the blessing - and curse - of being a social animal.

Fortunately, we humans have the capacity to consciously process our feelings. We can talk our issues through with ourselves or with others and then choose to shift gears. Some pets occupying the same household also have a knack for tacit resolution of conflict between themselves.

Things may be a bit more dicey for our pets, however, when it comes to negotiating our stress as we are seen as the beneficent providers who communicate so differently than they do. And nothing threatens a pet’s well being more that a direct threat to their ultimate source to whom they are inexorably bound.

I was reminded of this fact painfully well when my wife and I had a spat last week over an issue that pales now next to the memory of how our verbal tussle affected our girl, Lilly. Regrettably, it wasn’t until after I caught the distance in my wife’s eyes and Lilly’s shrinking and protective pose that I realized how far we’d strayed off course. Looking at Lilly, I could see my seven-year old self seeking shelter under the dining room table during my parents’ thunderous volleys.

Yes, the frontal cortex of humans is developed far in excess in that of our pets. (Not at all a value judgement. In fact, we might all be a bit happier if we weren’t so busy outsmarting ourselves.) At the same time, those pesky, more ancient parts of the brain - home to learned, intense and reinforceable reactions - are similarly developed in humans and dogs.

So, for a moment, imagine life for your pet in an animal shelter before you adopted him or her. Listen to that alternately swelling and subdued chorus of barking or meowing, over and over for days, weeks and months. Now imagine what it must be like for them to be in our company as we bark and shriek at each other.

Pets do so much to help us reduce our physical and emotional stress. Helping our pets do the same is the only considerate - and emotionally intelligent - thing to do.

Toward that end, we can extract a page from the tome of wisdom written by our resilient British friends:

Keep calm and carry on.