Can Stress Cause My Pet’s Disease?

There are so many aspects of health that we look at here at My Pet Nutritionist. Diet and lifestyle are considered, including vaccination schedules, chemical treatment exposure, the quality of water provided and the cleaning products/household products used in the pet’s environment. However there is another factor often overlooked when it comes to disease – stress! We often say disease is expressed according to how we interface with our environment. The main factors here being nutrition, toxins and stress. Stress can be mental, or physical. Mental stress and physical stress can also be linked. In this blog, we will look at the links between stress, and disease.

What is Stress?

We all know what stress feels like from time to time (and if you don’t, the rest of us are very jealous!), but how does it look from a biological standpoint? What actually happens in our and our pets’ bodies during stress?

Stress responses start off in the part of the brain that deals with emotions; the Amygdala. The Amygdala sends a message to the ‘control centre of the body’; the Hypothalamus, the very centre of the brain. The Hypothalamus then interacts with the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure etc) to make adjustments in the body, to cope with the stress.

The autonomic nervous system is the main system involved in stress responses, and branches into the sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous systems. These systems are what give the tell-tale signs of stress in your pets (and yourself!), and what help reduce the effects of the stress response. Let’s take a look at some of the common symptoms of stress, caused by the different systems:

The sympathetic nervous system

  • Inhibits saliva production
  • Increases heartrate
  • Dilutes pupils
  • Relaxes urinary bladder
  • Inhibits digestive capabilities (read on to find out more on this!)
  • Dilates bronchia

The parasympathetic nervous system

  • Promotes saliva production
  • Decreases heartrate
  • Constricts pupils
  • Constricts urinary bladder
  • Stimulates digestive functions
  • Constricts bronchia

Stress isn’t always emotional – it’s important to remember this! Common stressors include:

  • Emotional: fear, mental trauma, anxiety
  • Physical: over-exertion, injury, pain
  • Environmental: allergens, pollutants, radiation and rapid temperature changes
  • Biological: bacteria, viruses, parasitic burdens
  • Chemical: pesticides/herbicides, toxins, heavy metals
  • Consumable: ultra-processed foods

You can read more about the stress response here!

Findings Here
Findings Here

The Gut-Brain Axis

Gut health plays a role in mental health, which means the health of your pet’s gut, is incredibly important to look at if your pet is frequently stressed. The gut is very much linked to every system in the body, and the nervous system is no exception!

Bidirectional (both ways) occurs between the gut and the brain, so having a stressed pet, can be a little like a vicious circle, in that emotional stressors can affect the gut, and poor gut health can affect the pet’s emotions. Located in the peripheral nervous system, the main nerve associated with this bidirectional signalling between the gut and the brain, is the Vagus Nerve. Unlike other cranial nerves, which signal between the head and neck areas, the Vagus Nerve reaches all the way through the body, to connect the brain to the gut.

The Vagus Nerve is responsible for various bodily functions, including:

  • Allowing for swallowing and vocalisation in the larynx and pharynx
  • Parasympathetic supply to the heart in the thorax, which reduces the heart rate during stressful situations
  • Regulates smooth muscle contraction in the intestine, to enable normal defecation

The Vagus Nerve is essential to link the central nervous system to the enteric nervous system to enable healthy digestion.

You can read more about the Gut-Brain Axis here!

Findings Here

Emotional Stress and its Effects on the Body

Having an anxious pet can be heartbreaking for the owner – not to mention hard work (which is very much worth it!).

Due to the gut-brain axis, we know that emotional stress, doesn’t just stay within the brain! It can cause disease throughout the body, purely down to the fact the Vagus Nerve is an important part of so many systems in the body.

The endocrine (hormone) system, and enteric nervous system are both massively affected by poor brain health, and prolonged periods of emotional stress can lead to a host of hormone-related diseases, and disease within the digestive tract. Of course, not all dogs with endocrine or digestive issues are stressed, nor can it always be put down to stress, but stress responses and brain health are very often overlooked – so here is your reminder to check your pet’s mental wellbeing. Think about things you could improve in their life to give them a calmer, more level mental state if they are typically easily overwhelmed, or provide them with a more stimulating routine or space if your dog’s mental health is poor due to boredom. It works both ways!

Read on to find out more on how to keep your pet’s stress levels to a minimum.

Findings Here

Physical/Environmental Stress and its Effects on the Body

When our pets go through some form of physical stress, whether it’s injury, or illness, the pressure on the body’s systems (which are already working harder than normal, in order to fight disease or heal injuries) can once again, cause a vicious circle. The added pressure on the body’s systems, makes for the potential for disease to worsen due to stress. We need to help our pets recover in a timely manner with as little emotional stress as possible, in order to reduce stress.

Physical and environmental stress can cause emotional stress, which we know can lead to endocrine and digestive upset. Gut damage can then lead to numerous other diseases because 70-80% of the immune system lays in the gut.

Chemical/Consumable Stress and its Effects on the Body

Chemicals used on the pet, and around the pet as well as what you feed your pet can cause stress on the body, which leads to disease. This is something we see commonly here at My Pet Nutritionist. When the gut is healthy, and not damaged by the overuse of chemicals and processed foods, there is a much lesser chance of disease.

Chemical pesticides (including worm and flea treatments), vaccines, gardening products, household cleaning and fragrance products, and laundry products can all cause stress to the body, mostly down to their connection with poor gut health. These chemicals enter the blood stream via absorption into the skin, or directly via the digestive tract in the case of those ingested such as chewable flea and tick products, and wormers. The stress put onto the gut microbiome is great, and really knocks the microbiota off balance, which in turn causes gut damage, which leads to the potential for numerous diseases within the body.

In the case of ultra-processed foods, these are often high in fat, as they are usually sprayed with a mix of fats and flavour enhancers, and also high in carbohydrates – excessive fat and carbohydrate consumption puts major stress on the pancreas. This can cause pancreatitis, which can be tricky to manage, and if severe enough, can cause death.

It’s also important to know that food sensitivities can cause stress in the body, and also emotional stress due to the pain caused by symptoms. Food sensitivities can lead to disease of various parts of the body, from the skin (due to the gut-skin axis, which you can read about here), to the pancreas. To can read about the connection between food sensitivities and pancreatic flares here.

Findings Here

Keeping Stress Levels to a Minimum

It is very important to try to keep stress levels to a minimum in your pet, to help reduce the risk of disease in the body. There are various ways we can help keep our pets free from stress, or at least greatly minimised. Let’s take a look at these!


To reduce a dog’s emotional stress, we must focus on various aspects of behaviour, and ensure we meet the needs of our individual dog. What one dog needs/copes with, may not meet the needs of another dog. Things we can provide our dogs include:

  • A safe place to rest. A crate, pen, or bed – whichever the dog prefers
  • Plenty of sleep! Sleeping is essential in your dog’s routine
  • Brain games, puzzle toys, and activities. This helps promote calmness, and helps release happy hormones!
  • Provide suitable chews. Chewing releases happy hormones like Oxytocin.
  • Provide suitable exercise. Working breeds may need more exercise and brain stimulation than other breeds. Over exercising can cause physical stress.

Give your dog a suitable job, before he/she becomes self employed!

If your dog is reactive, you may wish to work with a qualified force free behaviourist to improve the associations with the trigger for your dog. Try to keep trigger stacking to a minimum by keeping your dog out of situations you know they will be stressed in!

To reduce further stress in the event of a freak injury, there are things we can work on with training to help the dog cope better. We never known when a freak accident may occur, and having a dog who is already stressed physically due to pain, we don’t want to add more emotional stress by not training these skills beforehand:

  • Muzzle train your dog! It doesn’t matter what breed your dog is, how their temperament is, but muzzle training your dog can be an incredibly useful skill. In the event of sudden pain, even the kindest natured of dogs may snap at you or your vet. If the dog is trained to comfortably wear a muzzle, they will be safer when in pain, as will those helping rehabilitate the dog, and it will be an all-round less stressful situation for all involved.

The less stress involved in an already stressful situation, the quicker recovery will be!

  • Crate train your dog! Even if you don’t use the crate as a regular sleepy spot for your dog. Try to train them to be comfortable in a crate. If ever your dog required strict crate rest following injury, or surgery, having a dog who is happy in a crate, will speed recovery up, as they will not be stressed!

In order to reduce physical/chemical stress for your dog, you may need to make some changes to their diet and lifestyle, such as:

  • Feeding a fresh food diet! Cut out the carb laden processed dry food, high fat treats and foods etc. Switching to a fresh food diet will help reduce stress inside the body.
  • Work on sensitivities. Eliminating allergens from your dog’s diet is paramount to reducing stress and inflammation in the gut, and therefore reduces the risk of stress leading to disease, including pancreatic flares.
  • Feed stress and anxiety friendly extras. You can learn more about these here.
  • Titre test instead of needlessly vaccinating! Over vaccination can cause enormous stress on the body! Read more about vaccinosis here.
  • Switch to natural pest prevention. The chemical burden caused by chemical versions can cause major stress in the body, so changing to natural alternatives can reduce this internal stress in the body.
  • Switch to natural cleaning products, and eliminate odours with an air purifier, or carefully selected essential oils (it’s important to use dog safe ones, and allow your dog to choose the oil used. Not for use in homes with cats!). Removing toxins from the environment is an important part of reducing stress in the body!


Cats can be quite easily stressed. They can be absolutely amazing at hiding their stress too, making it hard to spot, however one of the major signs of stress in cats, is excessive licking or hair pulling. If your cat has bald patches, this could be partly, or entirely down to stress. Cats in a multi-cat household often show stress by changes in behaviour toward each other, urinating and defecating in unusual places, or getting frequent Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs). Your cat’s stress could be seen by changes to body posture too!

To reduce emotional stress in your cat, there are a number of things we can provide to help them cope. These include:

  • Ensure there are enough litter trays, particularly for those with multiple cats! Having enough trays for there to be one per cat, plus an extra, can greatly reduce stress!
  • Provide activities. You can get lots of cat toys these days, including treat based puzzle toys. Catnip toys can be great to reduce stress, but some cats may have the opposite reaction to it, so use with caution. Top tip: American sourced catnip is generally much stronger than that sourced elsewhere!
  • Ensure your cat has plenty of scratch posts and levels to climb. Cats are agile creatures who love to climb and explore. Giving them levels in the home, and scratching posts to allow them to display natural behaviours is very useful in reducing stress levels!
  • Provide plenty of places to hide. If you have a generally anxious cat, giving them the opportunity to hide is very important! In order to bring their anxiety levels down, and ‘empty the stress bucket’, they will often hide. Who doesn’t love a bit of alone time when overwhelmed?

There are various things we can change in their diet and lifestyle too, to reduce physical/chemical stress in the body! Some of these things include:

  • Switching to a fresh food diet. Reducing the exposure to unsuitable foods (all dry foods on the market! Cats need moisture, and purely meat, bone and offal!) helps reduce stress internally. Stress on the gut and pancreas can be extreme in cats fed dry food and unnecessary plant matter.
  • Use natural pest prevention. Eliminating toxins and chemicals from the cat’s lifestyle will reduce internal stress and gut damage.
  • Change your household cleaning products to natural alternatives. Try to avoid using essential oils for scent in your home as these are mostly toxic to cats – an air purifier may be beneficial for odour control.

The Human!

Lastly … us! Us, the humans. The owners to our beloved pets. Our stress, doesn’t help their stress! Now, we’re not saying you being stressed is the cause of your pet’s disease – absolutely not wholeheartedly. That said, if we reduce our stress, it may well help reduce our pet’s stress. To learn more on our stress and how to cope with it, read our blog here!

We hope this blog article has helped you to understand why it’s so important to keep your pets as stress-free, both physically and mentally, in order to help them stay healthy, and increase longevity in the long run. If you are worried stress in your pet’s life could be a challenge for them, or could be contributing to a health issue, please don’t hesitate to book a consultation with one of our team to discuss a pathway to a less stressful, and therefore healthier life for your pet (and probably in turn, you!).

Team MPN x

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