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Why you should worry about stress levels and what you can do to reduce them (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2010

Maintenance of the physical and mental well being of animals within the shelter is a very important part of the stated mission for most sheltering organizations, yet surprisingly often stress reduction and enrichment to ensure good behavioral health is considered a luxury rather than part of basic care. An animal's behavioral health is a result of their genetic background, their learned behavior patterns as a result of previous experiences, and their environment. Being admitted into an animal shelter will for most pets mean adjusting to novel experiences and a novel environment, and will in many cases be quite stressful. We also know that stress compromises their immune system as well as their welfare. In an effort to maintain both the physical and mental wellbeing of the pets entrusted to our care, it is imperative that shelter veterinarians and shelter staff feel confident at recognizing and reducing stress of shelter animals.

"Let's imagine meeting the Five Freedoms and going beyond, such that animals become safer and healthier every day they are in our care." - Kate Hurley

The Five Freedoms

"The welfare of an animal includes its physical and mental state and we consider that good animal welfare implies both fitness and a sense of wellbeing. Any animal kept by man, must at least, be protected from unnecessary suffering.
     1. Freedom from hunger and thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
     2. Freedom from discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
     3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
     4. Freedom to express normal behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
     5. Freedom from fear and distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering."

Why should shelter professionals care about and stress and strive to reduce it?
     • Welfare –what is our obligation?
     • Health
          o Stress makes animals more susceptible to disease. Feline herpesvirus has been shown to be reactivated in 50% of n /olatently infected cats when exposed to stress.
          o Food intake and grooming has been shown to be significantly reduced in shelter cats during the first few stressful n weeks of their shelter stay.
          o Overall health is reduced when animals are exposed to prolonged or overwhelming stress.
     • Adoption
          o Stress leads to decreased exploratory and play behavior
          o Cats in enriched housing were adopted sooner and less likely to be euthanized
          o High behavioral stress scores correlated with euthanasia
     • Education
          o Modeling good care

Improving the behavioral health of shelter animals begins with understanding the sources of stress for shelter animals. Important stressors in a shelter/kennel environment include: environmental change, noise (especially barking dogs), confined living conditions, diet change, exposure to aggressive animals, separation from "family," lack of exercise, boredom, physical trauma, infection, acute/chronic disease, and intense heat/cold. If an animal is exposed to one stressful event/factor, it may show no significant outward effect. With the exposure to multiple factors, additive effects make the pet much less likely to be able to cope with stress, and much more likely to suffer adverse effects. The good news is that if we are able to provide mechanisms for coping, and remove some stressors, the animals in our care are much more likely to cope with the stressors that cannot be removed.

To be able to recognize and target stress we need to know how to recognize it. Classic signs of stress include: elevated heart and respiratory rate, dilated pupils, tense body posture, hiding in the back of the cage, inappetence, a lack of interest in the environment or people, panting, and vocalizing. It is important to note that a chronically stressed dog/cat may appear absolutely normal, but less active than is usual for that particular animal. All shelter pets should receive a daily stress assessment as part of daily rounds. This assessment can and should be done from outside the cage, as this is the environment the pet is living in- thus it is the best environment in which to assess their welfare.