Woman Walking With A Dog
Is stress killing your pet? Harried hounds and frazzled felines are more common than you think. In fact, stress contributes to or worsens many medical conditions in pets and people.

So how can you reduce the harmful effects of stress on your pet?

Although there are no easy answers or silver bullets when it comes to overcoming stress and anxiety, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your pet’s stress — and help both of you live longer, more enjoyable lives.

First of all, it's good to understand that there are different types of stress — and some stress is actually good for you. There’s even a scientific name for this beneficial stress: eustress.

Eustress is the sort of stress you experience when you’re exercising or training for an event, preparing for a test or learning a skill. As long as you remain calm and cool, these challenges are beneficial to you. This is why I encourage everyone to map out several new experiences for the New Year.

In terms of goals for your pets, think about what would be healthy or fun for you and your animal. Create challenges for your cat by teaching her to play fetch, tackle a food puzzle or follow a feather dancer. If you are a dog owner, pledge to walk your pooch every day for at least 15 to 30 minutes — even if it's raining, sleeting or snowing. Then log your progress on a calendar or start a blog: The Year of Walking My Dog. I’d read it. You could even take a picture and post it each day on Facebook. At the end of the year, you could make a video collage and have forever memories to share. I’ve digressed here, but I’m ultimately trying to inspire you to exercise with your dog. It will make both of you happier and reduce stress — which is the real enemy.

Combating stress is critical. Not the fancy-pants “eustress” kind I wrote about above, but the my-kids-are-crying-and-my-boss-is-yelling stress we know too well. Pets recognize and experience it, too. While humans can complain about it on Facebook, dogs and cats have to take it in silence. Just imagine living the life of a predator who's confined inside four small walls. Or envision if every fiber in your body screams, “Chase that squirrel,” yet you never get to go outside for more than a quick potty break. It would be frustrating and stressful.

Stress not only negatively impacts our emotional well-being, but it also wreaks havoc on our bodies. Chronic, low-grade stress in people and pets increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which leads to overeating and obesity, high blood pressure, digestive problems, insomnia, increased susceptibility to infections, aggression and irritability, to name a few.

So go ahead and commit to finishing that 5k, half-marathon or even an Ironman triathlon this year to help yourself — and make a similar plan for your pet. It doesn't matter what you choose to do, as long as you keep moving forward. You’ll both live longer and be healthier for it.

In the next month, Dr. Ernie Ward will devote several columns to pet stress, covering such issues as noise pollution, boredom and pain. Look for these articles on Vetstreet here.