Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Cortisol Vacation for Dogs
You may have never heard about a dog cortisol vacation, but maybe your dog desperately needs one. No, this doesn't mean it's time to pack your belongings and head for an expensive trip to the Bahamas with Rover, nor does it mean you have to board your dog in one of those expensive pet resorts with hundreds of five-paw amenities such as doggy massages.
The truth is your dog can have a comfy cortisol vacation right now, in the comfort of your home. But first, let's take a look at what this means.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It's normally released in response to hormones released from the brain in stressful situations. This hormone helps you gain that extra energy so you can react best and deal with any challenging issues.
Typically what happens is the body increases its metabolism and frees up glucose levels for extra energy.
While the occasional isolated case of cortisol increase may be helpful, such as when a dog is stressed before entering the agility ring, chronic, prolonged stress with high cortisol levels may cause problems in the long run to both the body and mind.
The Impact of Stressful Events on Dogs
But what kind of stress affects dogs? It's not like Rover needs to balance his checkbook each month, worry about bills, and deal with a needy boss who wants him to meet deadlines on a constant basis!
Well, it turns out that dogs may lead quite stressful lives. "Stressors may be actual or perceived, and can be psychological or physiological in origin," says a research paper.
Whether your dog is taken every day to daycare for long periods of time, competes in trials for several days in a row or must learn to live with a new canine companion or a baby, chances are, he may be stressed and his brain may be flooded with cortisol, as it may happen with severe, sustained stress.
While a short-term stress response can be adaptive, and aid in survival such as when our dogs hear a sudden scary sound and startle ready to escape, long-term exposure to stress hormones, as seen in cases of chronic stress, can have detrimental effects on the dog's body potentially predisposing dos to endocrine, metabolic, autoimmune or behavioral disorders over time.
Recognizing stress in dogs and its impact on their bodies is therefore important for their overall physical wellbeing and emotional welfare.
How is Cortisol Measured in Dogs?
When it comes to measuring stress in dogs and therefore quantifying the level of stress in dogs, you can't just rely on assumptions or personal interpretations.
Sure, the dog's behavior can provide some insights, but in order to measure stress accurately, you need to quantify it, which means you need to use some system that relies on hard data.
Cortisol concentrations in dogs are therefore often measured by taking samples from a variety of sources such as the dog's blood, saliva, urine, and feces.
Such measurements are often taken in studies and for research purposes to evaluate how certain stressors and living conditions may impact the welfare of dogs.
For example, in one study, it was found that dogs exhibited an outstanding 207 percent increase in their salivary cortisol levels after exposure to sounds mimicking an approaching thunderstorm. Such high levels of cortisol failed to return to normal baseline within 40 minutes.
Cortisol Levels Take Time to Decrease
Once stress becomes persistent or chronic, there is continued stimulation of the dog's HPA axis, with its associated increase in cortisol. It takes some time for cortisol levels to lower after your dog has been stressed for some time.
This is what a cortisol vacation was crafted for: helping your dog learn how it feels to relax and reap the benefits that come with it.
The first time I ever heard about a dog cortisol vacation was when reading about Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed program for behavior changes in dogs.
In the next paragraphs, we will learn how long a cortisol vacation should be and how to help your dog reap the benefits of it.
What Happens During a Dog Cortisol Vacation?
So how do you put your dog on a cortisol vacation? You simply minimize your dog's exposure to common stressors and if this is not feasible, you help your dog learn better coping mechanisms.
Your dog definitively doesn't feel good if he is always on edge and in a hyper-aroused state.
This means you'll have to first learn how to identify signs of stress in your dog, and next you'll have to identify what triggers stress in your dog so you can minimize exposure to those triggers.
Following are some examples of things you can do.
- Cover windows if your dog is reactive to people or other dogs passing by.
- Walk your dog at a time when there are little or no triggers.
- Take a break from sport competitions.
- Limit excited, over-the-top games
- Temporarily avoid visits at the dog park or doggy day care.
- Reduce the number of visitors to the home if this upsets your dog.
- Invest in effective dog calming aids.
- Keep your dog's mind active with some fun puzzle games, nosework and some composed training.
- Provide your dog with stress release opportunities such as giving your dog something to chew on, playing a game of tug, keeping his mind busy by sniffing or renting a large space for him to run free.
If you think your dog will miss his pals at the dog park or will feel bored, think again. Most dogs will adjust just fine and will be actually happy as they get a feel of what it feels to be totally relaxed.
How Long Should a Cortisol Vacation Last?
How long should a cortisol vacation last? Several sources give different periods of time ranging from 3 days to several weeks. Control Unleash recommends at least one month. However, the real answer is that we don't really know.
Every dog is an individual and unless we can quantify his cortisol levels, it is impossible to come up with how long it may take for a dog to de-stress.
Not to mention, some dogs may need extra help despite how much effort is put to help these dogs de-stress. This can mean consulting with a veterinary behaviorist for medications to help take the edge off.
If you want to work on helping your dog learn better coping skills, you'll need to continue working him so he can learn how to better face his fears.
This is done by watching your dog's stress signals, knowing his triggers keeping your dog under threshold, and at the same time, possibly desensitizing him and counterconditioning him to his triggers with the help of a professional.
Teaching your dog to face his fears in a systematic way, will help him better learn how to cope and better deal with life's every day triggers. Ask the help of a force-free behavior professional to show you how.
- Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog, 2007
- Packer RMA, Davies AM, Volk HA, Puckett HL, Hobbs SL, Fowkes RC (2019) What can we learn from the hair of the dog? Complex effects of endogenous and exogenous stressors on canine hair cortisol. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216000. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216000
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 09, 2013:
Many older dogs do not appreciate the rambunctious energy of puppies. Sometimes, it helps to keep the puppy separated for some time to drain its energy through walks, play and training and then reuniting him with the older dog. This way the energy levels may match up better and the pup may feel more ready for a nap.
instantlyfamily on September 09, 2013:
Interesting read, indeed. I believe my older dog Fluffy, may be stressed ever since we got a new puppy last year. The new puppy grew to be 3 times the size of Fluffy. The big puppy is constantly trying to get Fluffy to "play". I think Fluffy get stressed by it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2013:
Lol Wetnose, thinking about it, I think a cortisol vacation would benefit me too!
wetnosedogs from Alabama on September 08, 2013:
My dogs are doing just fine. Sounds like I am the one who needs a cortisol vacation LOL.