New research shows our furry friends feel our stress, giving us a window into our own health — and possibly impacting theirs as well. Here’s what to do.
If you think your dog gets stressed out, part of the problem could be… well, you.
In a new study from Sweden’s Linköping University, researchers found dogs’ stress levels were greatly influenced by their owners and not the other way around.
Their findings suggest that “dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress levels of their owners.”
The study, which was
Dog owners answered questions about their own personality traits, including neuroticism and openness. They also performed a similar task for their dogs, answering a dog personality questionnaire wherein they scored their dog on traits like excitability, fearfulness, and aggression.
Researchers looked at hair concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol in both the dogs and their owners as an indicator of stress.
Hair cortisol concentrations were taken twice from samples cut close to the skin, once in the summer and once in the winter. In both samples, the cortisol levels from the dogs were “synchronized” with their owners.
The authors say this is the first study to identify long-term synchronization in stress levels between members of two different species.
“It almost seems intuitively obvious that there is an association between human stress and emotions and that of their pets. I believe many of us have suspected that relationship. Clearly, by measuring cortisol levels, the researchers were able to demonstrate this using scientific data,” said Greg Nelson, DVM, a veterinarian at Central Veterinary Associates in Valley Stream, New York.
Nelson wasn’t involved in the research.
The study also gives greater insight into dog/owner stress levels related to behavior, exercise, and other aspects of lifestyle.
For example, cortisol is known to be affected by physical activity. To control for this, researchers included both dogs that were primarily pets and companions, as well as dogs that were trained and actively competed in activities like agility courses.
Both groups of dogs showed cortisol synchronization, but the correlation was even stronger between dogs and owners who competed.
The reason, the authors suggest, may be that dogs and owners who train together might be more emotionally bonded by spending additional time together and engaging in shared tasks.
Other noticeable effects on cortisol levels included season (during the winter there were higher levels) and sex (female dogs showed higher cortisol concentrations than their male counterparts).
The study also sheds further light on the concept of “emotional contagion,” the sharing or mirroring of emotional response between animals living in a group.
While it’s typically observed within the same species, it can also be observed interspecies, as in this case of dogs and their owners.
“The dog is a good model since it shares everyday life with its owner. And we do know from before that we have beneficial health effects of dogs and that we respond similarly to interaction in the short term,” said Lina Roth, PhD, a professor at Linköping University and an author of the study.
Roth said the results of their work can lead to many different areas of research including better understanding of dog stress based on breed, and the effects of having male owners.
The practical implications of such work could lead to better pairing of different breeds with people based on the owner’s own personality traits.
Such information could be particularly useful in the realm of service animals or emotional support animals.
The study also serves as a reminder to dog owners that, yes, your dog can and will get stressed out from time to time, especially if you’re getting stressed.
In light of this information, it’s important to take note of their behavior because it can greatly affect the overall health of your pet.
According to the American Kennel Club, anxiety and stress in dogs can result from many different things including separation, fear, and aging.
Symptoms of stress in dogs can include:
- excessive barking
- going to the bathroom in the house
There are different treatment options available for dogs with stress, including additional training and even certain kinds of medication.
But, as this study suggests, behavioral changes can also start with owners.
So, if you’re stressed out, think about the impact it can have on your dog and take steps to remedy the situation.
This can be especially obvious at high-stress places like the vet’s office.
“Carefree clients have dogs that readily jump on the exam table or have submissive pets. Clients that have clear anxiety and [are] easy to panic have pets that run or hide under the owner’s chair or behind the owner,” said Nelson.
A new study found that dogs’ stress levels are greatly influenced by their owners’ stress levels.
The authors suggest the reason for this may be that dogs and owners who spend more time together might be more emotionally bonded.
These findings could help future research and understanding of how service or emotional support animals can best improve human health.
The research is also an indicator that pet owners should be aware of how their own health can also impact the well-being of their furry family members.