Many of us will know how stress can effect our sleep, lying awake worrying really takes its toll. But, did you know that dogs can also feel stress?
A 2017 study published by Proceedings of The Royal Society B showed that dogs actually suffer poor sleep when they’re anxious or stressed. Researchers in the test discovered negative actions caused dogs to have poor sleep that they awoke quickly from, while the pooches that enjoyed more positive experiences managed an hour of deep, consistent napping.
We all know how important good sleep is, so how can you make sure your dog is free of stress at bedtime?
The 2017 study
The three-hour experiment was carried out by scientists in Hungary and involved a mix of 16 dogs, including a Labrador Retriever, Shetland Sheepdog and Boxer. To test the effect of stress on sleep, some of the dogs received ‘positive’ experiences before sleeping, while the others endured ‘negative’ experiences prior to resting (all dogs were subjected to both types of experiences). After monitoring the sleeping brainwaves of the canines, researchers came to the conclusion that anxiety plays a part in the ability of a dog to relax and rest.
Typically, dogs that received a ‘good’ experience — filled with petting, attention and games — managed around an hour of deep, non-REM sleep. Conversely, ‘bad’ experiences — which included isolation from their owner and being approached menacingly — caused the dogs to have only around 40-50 minutes of non-REM sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the more active, lighter resting stage consisting of increased heart rate and quicker breathing, while non-REM is a deeper sleeping stage that provides optimum rest and more regular breathing and heart rates. Although REM sleep takes up around 20%-25% of overall sleep time in adult humans, it’s important that we achieve the non-REM stage in order to get what we’d refer to as a ‘decent night’s sleep’, free of tossing and turning.
Research leader, Dr. Anna Kis, said: “We found dogs get less deep sleep after a negative experience. It suggests that, just like humans have a bad night’s sleep after a difficult day, dogs may have a similar problem.”
Interestingly, after a negative experience, the dogs in this experiment tended to fall asleep much faster than the canines that had received a more pleasant pre-sleep time. Dr. Kis, explained: “In humans, stress causes difficulty falling asleep, whereas dogs fall asleep more quickly — we think as a protective measure to remove themselves from the stressful environment.”
Although the dogs all slept for roughly the same amount of time, it was the inability for the ‘stressed’ dogs to enter that vital non-REM stage that highlights how negative experiences can adversely affect their emotional state.
Signs of a stressed dog
Identifying if your dog has a problem is the first step to helping. Keeping your eye out for the following stress indicators is so important:
Commonly a way to cool down, you only need to worry if your dog appears to be panting for no reason, with their ears back and low on their head.
You might have heard a neighbour’s dog barking in the back garden for hours and thought it was nothing more than a nuisance. However, excessive barking can be your dog’s way of telling you that they’re anxious.
If your dog suddenly becomes destructive – perhaps chewing furniture or ripping up things, this may be stress related behaviour.
All dogs shed their fur now and then. But if you’ve noticed more fur around the house than usual, it might be worth getting them checked by a vet. It can be a sign of stress.
If you your dog is constantly licking their nose and lips — and they haven’t just eaten — this can be a sign of anxiety.
This may sound obvious, but watch your dog for signs of yawning — this could let you know that they aren’t getting as much deep, non-REM sleep as they should.
How to de-stress your dog
According to Dr. Kis, consistently poor sleep could stop your dog ‘consolidating memories’ and ‘dealing with their emotions’, which might make them more aggressive. In agreement is senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, Gudrun Ravetz, who said: “We know that positive interactions with our pets are important for their overall health and welfare.”
Dogs thrive on routine and rules. If your dog knows roughly what time you go to work, they get fed, you come home, and they head out for a walk; it’ll make them feel more settled. Try to maintain a routine as it will aid your dog to feel calm.
Diet and exercise
We all benefit from exercise both physically and mentally. If your dog is stressed, extend their walks by 10 or 15 minutes. Or consider heading into the garden once a day to play fetch. Taking them swimming is a great way to tire out your anxious pooch and an excellent stress booster. Speak to your vet about special pet swimming pools local to you.
It is also worth taking a look at what they’re eating, making changes if necessary – after checking with your dog’s vet. These changes could include switching to natural dog food or cutting out the human treats you give them, which can be harmful to canines.
Try not to leave your dog for long periods during the day. While some dogs handle being alone better than others, some suffer from separation anxiety which causes stress and panic. If you can, pop home to see them during the day, or organise a dog walker.
Remember that dogs do pick up on what is happening in their home environment. If home life is stressful, your dog will be stressed also.