Updated: Apr 30, 2019
Our pets are intimately attuned to our emotions. Haven't we all experienced our kitty climbing onto our lap and nuzzling us when we are sad, or our doggie offering a paw and a concerned gaze when we are crying. Our "fur-kids" commonly reflect or take on the feelings of their family members. I have often seen pets express increasingly more anxious behaviors as their human parents become more stressed, anxious or worried. Then, when their human parents are able to develop skills to diminish their own experience of anxiety and stress, their pets relax. It is, therefore, important to think about how human stress, emotional and relationship dynamics within the household, and our modern lifestyle affects our pets. How is our stress becoming a chronic stress stimulus in our pets? How is this affecting their well-being? And what can we do about it?
The Relationship between Stress and Cancer
Many studies have now been published which report the detrimental effects of stress hormones on immune function in human cancer patients. Our high stress lifestyles contribute to cancer development and progression. These tumor-causing effects of long term stress have been duplicated in laboratory settings. Even more comprehensive evidence exists which shows chronic stress and stress-related hormones contribute to tissues developing cancerous characteristics including inflammation, resistance to normal cell death signals, escape from the immune system, ability to form their own blood supply (to get food and oxygen), and the ability to metastasize (travel to and grow in other tissues of the body).
Continuous exposure to stress stimuli results in uncontrolled production of stress hormones. This has a damaging effect on health and immune function. Stress hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine impact cancer cell survival and tumor progression. These substances released from nerve fibers (norepinephrine) and blood (epinephrine) in response to stress stimuli activate receptors in the environment around the tumor and on the surface of the tumor cells. This activation impacts cancer cell biology as well as immune function. Expression of genes which help the tumor grow increases with stress. Conversely, these same signals decrease expression of anti-cancer genes and decrease immune system function. This is the scientific proof for the long-observed association between cancer and stress.
The Good News
Cognitive-behavioral stress management (mind-body tools focused on anxiety reduction and coping skills) can reverse anxiety-related inflammatory states and stress-related increase in genes that promote cancer progression. Cognitive-behavioral therapies have been shown to lower death rates and increased cancer-free survival in a number of human cancer patient studies. It, therefore, makes sense to consider how environmental and behavioral management of stressors in our pet's lives may provide similar improvement in disease control.
There are many causes for chronic stress in pets which can be logically identified by observing the typical stressors in a companion animal’s life. These would primarily include home environment (both emotional and physical stressors) and diet.
There are many things you can do to minimize stress for your pet and support an environment of emotional well-being where they can flourish.
Five things you can do to minimize stress for your pet and support healing
Go on forest walks with your pet outside among the trees.
At least 20-30 minutes of nature exposure is most effective at reducing stress hormones.
There is a type of therapy called "Forest Bathing" that is just what it sounds like. Walking among the trees breathing in the air.
Trees emit substances called phytoncides which have been shown to improve the immune system and reduce stress hormones.
Here is a cool video if you want to learn more.
Share time each day with your pet doing something that makes you genuinely experience happy feelings
This might be anything you both genuinely find joy in doing, from running outside to playing silly games that make you laugh with pure enjoyment at their silly antics. Or perhaps cuddling in front of a cozy fire with your attention only on each other, soaking up the love you experience with them, and your thoughts on all the things you are grateful for in life. Maybe playing some uplifting music in the background.
The important part of this is that you are feeling joy, happiness, or at least contentment. There is a powerful phenomenon called
"resonance" or "entrainment".
Make a special effort to feed your pet clean,
healthy, toxin-free foods that minimize metabolic stress
This is a big topic. I'll be sharing more about this in future blogs. But as a starting point, fresh whole organic foods like dark leafy greens (kale, swiss chard, dandelion greens), broccoli sprouts, and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage) are low in sugar and loaded with vitamins and nutrients that are good for your pet.
We will talk more about this later, but as an example, regular feeding of green leafy vegetables and yellow-orange vegetables (which are high in vitamin A) decreased the risk of developing bladder cancer in Scottish Terriers, a breed at high risk for this disease.
Do at least one thing every day
to take care of your own emotional health
One of the most important things you can do for your pet is to, DAILY, care for your own emotional health.
practices like Metta (loving kindness) meditation and mindfulness practices are very effective tools to help you
manage stress and intense emotional experiences.
find something you like to do. Yoga, Tai Chi, jogging, or walking in the woods (see forest bathing!) are all good options.
*Eat a healthy diet*
healthy diet is associated with
Get an Aromatherapy Massage
and/or give a massage to your dog
Aromatherapy massage was shown to reduce markers associated with stress, anxiety, and depression and lowered cortisol levels in people.
Lavender and bergamot essential oils decrease anxiety and stress in dogs. Place a few drops in an ultrasonic diffuser and give your pet a loving massage while you both enjoy the relaxing effects of the aromatherapy.
*Note: It is very important to use high quality, pure, essential oils in pets. We use this blend at the clinic and people love it. (full disclosure, I make it and sell it. You can make your own if you know what you are doing. Do not use in pets with asthma or respiratory issues. Consult your veterinarian with any concerns or questions about use for your pet.)
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