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Pets and Stress: When House Guests Can Be a Nightmare

Reading Time: 5 minutes Are raucous family holidays an assault on your pets’ nerves? How to cope.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Family visits and pets don’t always go together. When Sally Wells got a phone call from her son and daughter-in-law announcing they were coming to stay over Thanksgiving, she was understandably thrilled to be seeing her rambunctious grandchildren. But at the same time, the pending visit posed a dilemma: her two cats and the family dog, used to a quiet, laidback lifestyle, wouldn’t be quite as hospitable, viewing the influx of family members as an assault on their typical calm routine.

Prior to her family’s arrival, Sally set up one bedroom as a refuge for the cats with a water bowl and litter box and brought their meals to this quiet zone.

But despite this set up, the kids insisted on disturbing the cats and chasing them, trying to coax them out from hiding spots with lots of yelling and screaming and whoops of delight. Then they turned their attention to the dog, who despite putting on a friendly face, was struggling to resist the urge to nip them. Their parents made disapproving noises but basically turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to their children’s antics.

The pets were so spooked that they refused to eat, even when Sally coaxed them. From the perspective of the cats and the dog, it was a stressful and noisy nightmare that lasted three days.

The day her family left, Sally noticed runny stools in the litterbox but was unable to determine which cat was responsible. She also found poop on the stairs and even in the bedroom. Finally, Sally tracked the culprit, scooped up the poop and the offended cat, and went to the vet.

The vet sent the stool sample out for analysis, prescribed an antibiotic, a probiotic, and a diet to settle the tummy, and announced that this was a classic case of stress-induced colitis.

Thinking the problem was solved, Sally was horrified the next day to see her second cat also pooping everywhere. Back to the vet to repeat the whole procedure. And then the dog joined Team Poop.

Stress Colitis

Stress colitis in both cats and dogs is brought on by physical or mental stress and anxiety. The family antics over the holiday weekend were the perfect setup for this to occur.

Just like people, pets feel the negative effects of stress on their bodies. Stress can weaken a pet’s immune system, cause inflammation throughout the body, and lead to overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the intestines, causing diarrhea linked to stress colitis.

“I do see more dogs with stress-related colitis than cats,” says Brandie Melville, DVM, of Stonecreek Animal Hospital in Irvine, California. “However, cats can very well be affected too.  And the personality of the cat or dog definitely plays a role in whether they will develop stress colitis. Some pets love attention from visitors, typically dogs more than cats, but a shy animal will absolutely be more likely to be stressed.”

According to Dr. Melville, the type of diarrhea usually associated with stress-induced colitis is typically loose or runny, may be discolored, and can have mucous or fresh (bright red) blood. The pet may have increased urgency to defecate and not make it to their usual spot to eliminate (outside for dogs and litterbox for cats).

For diagnosis, a veterinarian will use a combination of history (visitors or other stress-inducing circumstances), physical exam findings, and fecal tests to look for bacterial overgrowth and make sure there are no parasites.

Other signs in cats can include poor appetite, vomiting, and change in typical social behaviors.

Treatment

“For treatment, probiotics and a high-fiber diet are key. Antibiotics are used if a bacterial overgrowth is present,” Melville says. “The antibiotics used would be determined by the pet’s veterinarian, but typically include metronidazole, tylosin, or amoxicillin. Amoxicillin comes in both pill and liquid form, metronidazole is just a pill but can be compounded into a liquid, and tylosin is a powder which can be put into capsules because it is bitter.”  

Ultimately, the duration of the probiotics, food, and potential antibiotics will vary and be determined by the veterinarian in each individual situation.

Between the fecal analysis, the cost of the vet visits with follow-ups, the antibiotics, probiotics, and special food, the cost would easily have covered a three-night hotel stay for the family instead and Wells has vowed that is what she is going to do next time. No more houseguest sleepovers that cause family pets stress.

Other Stress Factors Around the Home

However, lots of everyday activities around the home can also stress pets without pet parents really being aware that there is an issue.

Being left home alone for extended periods can be a great cause for anxiety, especially if your pet is an only dog or cat. Toys and treat puzzles can also help because they offer a distraction when you walk out the door.

Loud noises, especially from workmen, are another huge stress factor for both dogs and cats. Whether it’s workmen doing maintenance or renovations inside or outside or the weekly garden service, for pets it is a stressful intrusion.  

Typical signs of feline stress are excessive grooming, tail chasing, loss of appetite, hiding, vomiting, and diarrhea. Evan barking dogs can stress a cat!

The same signs of stress apply to dogs, along with destructive behavior, such as chewing furniture and other items in the home, excessive barking both inside and outside, and peeing and pooping around the house.

What about noise? If they’re not used to it, loud music can be a huge stress factor for pets. Cats, in particular, may be more sensitive to loud music, especially heavy metal. So if your cat is hiding, it may not be that she’s feeling antisocial; it could be a plea to turn off the music or opt for something from a different genre such as soft classical, pop, or soft rock.

Going Stress-Free

A pending visit to the veterinary clinic is another stressor. That’s why a Fear Free veterinary practice offers the best calming solution for such a visit. Such veterinary practices go above and beyond to limit stress factors in the waiting room and the exam room.

When it comes to dogs, daily exercise helps a lot as a stress reliever, as it does in people. Try to establish a daily routine for your dog. If you will be moving this summer, once you are settled, it’s important to establish that routine once more.

Many dogs feel secure in a comfy crate they can call their own, and crate-training your pooch to be comfortable in a crate will give her a safe place to hang out. Be sure she has a nice, cuddly blanket and her favorite toys inside too.

In the same way as swaddling clothes mothers use to comfort babies and small children, the calming grip of garments such as the ThunderShirt (www.ThunderShirt.com) might help reduce anxiety levels. They are available for both dogs and cats.

And it’s important to remember that most pets are not party animals. If you are having a large crowd over, even if it’s just for a couple of hours, confine pets to a part of the home where they will not be disturbed during the festivities. They will be less stressed, and you will have peace of mind. Your pet should already be familiar with this safe haven and know that it’s a place they can go to relax.

It’s impossible to never have strangers and family members coming in and out of the home, so setting up pheromone diffusers is an excellent way of trying to establish a feeling calm serenity and normalcy until everything really is back to normal.

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

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle journalist and author of For the Love of Cats, Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat, The Original Cat Bible, and Making the Most of All Nine Lives: The Extraordinary Life of Buffy The Cat.

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