The difference between acute and chronic stress in dogs

Unfortunately, stress is a feeling most of us are all too familiar with in daily life. But it is by no means unique to the human condition. In fact, as kindred mammals and close companions, the manifestation of stress is similar in both humans and pets, with the potential to make both us and them edgy, hyper, or irritable. While a certain level of stress is expected – and sometimes even necessary for development – severe and repeated exposure to stressors has the potential to impact a dog’s state of health, wellbeing, and behavior. This is why it’s essential to understand your pet’s stress triggers and responses in order to avoid acute stress and the development of chronic stress conditions.

Definition of stress

Most of us use the word daily to describe any number of situations, but what does stress really mean? Stress can be defined as any type of change that requires attention or action that provokes a physiological, behavioral, or psychological response. Therefore, any stimulus that provokes this kind of reaction can be considered a stressor.

That doesn’t mean any situation stressful situation should be avoided at all costs. The stress response both we and our dogs experience is an important function of evolution – one that has allowed each of our species to adapt and survive over the course of millennia. “Eustress” refers to stimulation or “positive stress” that motivates an individual to use energy to overcome a challenge and learn new capabilities. We can see examples of this kind of behavior in puppies during socialization when play fighting with each other. During this state of arousal, the pups are learning to cope with moderate and manageable amounts of stress while establishing social bonds and boundaries.

Ultimately, you can expect your dog to experience some level of stress as part of its development. There will inevitably be situations when you have to expose your pet to stressors out of necessity or for its own benefit, such as trips to the veterinarian or the kennel. These situations may place your dog temporarily in a state of “acute stress,” which, if managed appropriately, can help build its resilience over time.

The unwelcome neighbor of “eustress” is distress. While there can be considered a “peak performance level” of eustress that sharpens a dog’s focus and abilities, there comes a point when stressors become excessive and cause psychological strain.

Persistent or excessive stress levels can lead to a dog’s sympathetic nervous system becoming perpetually stimulated. This is where acute stress can lead to “chronic stress.”

According to The Whole Dog Journal: “a huge percentage of what is perceived as canine ‘misbehavior’ is actually a dog’s response to stress.” We’ll examine the difference between acute and chronic stress, its triggers and symptoms, and how to manage your dog’s health to mitigate the long-term health and behavior impacts.

Acute and chronic stress

Acute stress

According to the Dogs Trust UK:  “The acute or immediate stress response places a dog into a state of biological preparedness. This optimizes the physical ability of the dog to respond appropriately to the challenge, with the aim of surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on genetic material.”

Signs of acute stress

The acute stress response prepares your dog for action. It provokes a physical response: releasing adrenaline and raising blood glucose levels that lead to a heightened sense of energy and awareness. Since most of a dog’s emotions are expressed through body language, this manifests in physical actions or vocalizations. Look out for:



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