How Your Mental Health Can Affect Your Dog

June 7, 2019

If you think your dog looks stressed out, it might be your own stress levels that are affecting your pet pooch.

A study published on Thursday in Nature’s Scientific Reports shows pet dogs may synchronise their stress levels with those of their owners.

More than just being man’s best friend, it appears our pet dogs may be mirroring our mental state too, and that can be bad for their health.

It’s all in the hair

Swedish researchers studied 58 dogs — 33 Shetland Sheepdogs and 25 Border Collies — as well as their owners. The dogs selected were balanced for sex, breed and activity level.

Both dog and owner personality was assessed through standardised personality questionnaires, with owners filling out the Dog Personality Questionnaire on behalf of their pet.

The researchers also measured the hormone cortisol in the hair of dogs and their owners over a year-long period.

Cortisol is a measure of physiological stress, which can be raised during mental distress. But it’s also elevated for short periods such as during exercise and illness.

Cortisol found in hair is a good way of measuring long-term trends in stress levels, as hair grows slowly (about one centimetre per month) and absorbs circulating substances from the blood.

Impact on dogs

The results showed a significant correlation between human and dog cortisol levels across the year.

In 57 of the dogs in summer and 55 in winter, cortisol levels matched those of their owners. This means that for these dogs, their cortisol levels rose and fell in unison with their owner’s.

Signs your dog is anxious

One of the hard things about our relationships with dogs is that when something is up, they can’t easily communicate that to us. That’s why, with issues such as anxiety, we need to know what to look for and how to treat it.

This correlation was not influenced by dog activity levels or dog personality. It was, however, influenced by the personality of the dog’s owner.

Owners with higher stress levels tended to have dogs with higher stress levels too.

Female dogs had a stronger connection with their owner’s stress levels compared with male dogs. Previous studies have shown that female dogs (as well as rats and chimpanzees) are more emotionally responsive than males.

There’s also evidence that increased oxytocin (the love and bonding hormone) in female dogs results in increased interactions with their owner, causing a corresponding increase in the owner’s oxytocin levels. This effect wasn’t seen in male dogs.

A limiting factor to the new study was that it did not identify any causes of elevated stress in the dog owners. But what it does show is that regardless of the cause of the stress, our reaction to it impacts our dogs.

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