Anxiety can be a part of life even for our dogs and cats. It's not all chasing tails, smelling catnip, and playing with toys. Our pets are as susceptible to anxiety as we are. Just like in people, each pet handles stressors differently. When anxiety is ongoing and interferes with daily life, left untreated it can lead to behavioral and health problems.
Things like incessant barking and destructive chewing in dogs, litter box avoidance and over-grooming in cats as well as health conditions like chronic digestive problems, depression, and more can sometimes be a result of untreated anxiety.
In this article, we’ll briefly explore how ongoing anxiety may affect dog and cat gut health.
Anxiety leads the body to believe that danger is always just around the corner. The body prepares for this danger by releasing hormones that help it to prepare for fight or flight. Blood flow to the heart and lungs increases; simultaneously, blood flow decreases to areas that the body considers “non-essential” at the moment, including digestion. This means that the digestive tissue is not receiving the oxygen or nutrients from the blood that it needs to function optimally.
When pets experience anxiety for long periods of time, their digestive tissue could be starved of this important nourishment for months or even years. A deprived digestive system is not a healthy one, and the pet is now at an increased risk for developing a digestive disorder. That’s not to say that anxiety causes chronic digestive issues like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) - rather, anxiety is one factor among many that may contribute to digestive disorders.
Your pet’s digestive tract is filled with trillions of tiny organisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that help your pet with all kinds of crucial life functions, including digesting food, regulating metabolism, and moderating the immune system. If these tiny organisms, collectively called the microbiome, are not properly balanced or don’t contain the right kinds of organisms, that may contribute further to anxiety-motivated behaviors.
In a study on the connection between anxiety and the microbiome, researchers put mice through a series of tests to assess their predisposition to anxiety-like traits, including willingness to try new foods or to venture into new, unfamiliar environments. Anxious mice are more likely to assess these novel situations as “dangerous” and are much less inclined to investigate. After grouping the mice into “anxious” and “non-anxious” groups, they took fecal samples to assess their microbiome composition.
The researchers found that some kinds of bacteria were overwhelmingly deficient or absent in the mice in the “anxious” group. This included the Lachnospiraceae family, which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and may help protect against certain types of cancer.
Other kinds of bacteria, like those belonging to the Streptococcus genus, were much more likely to be present in high levels in the anxious mice. Higher levels of Streptococcus bacteria are correlated with digestive issues, and some strains are even known pathogens.
Though this research is in its early stages, as we investigate further, it’s quite possible that we will discover many more connections between gut bacteria and anxiety. Treating your pet’s anxiety can be a long, difficult journey. If you find that your pet is displaying anxious behaviors, you might first visit your veterinarian to be sure there is not an underlying health condition. You may also consider seeking help from a qualified trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques to learn how you can decrease your pet’s anxiety.
Supporting a healthy gut microbiome likely won’t cure your pet’s anxiety on its own. However, being aware of your pet's gut health and knowing ways to improve it is certainly an important piece of the puzzle.
If you’re curious or concerned about your pet’s gut health we offer Microbiome Testing for Cats: Kitty Kit and Microbiome Testing for Dogs: Doggy Kit. You can learn the types and proportions of bacteria living in your pet’s gut microbiome, tips to improve gut health, and compare your pet's results with those found in healthy cats and dogs. We also offer Gut Restoration Supplements for cats and dogs with chronic digestive issues including diarrhea, vomiting, and constipation that introduce whole communities of healthy microbes to your pet.