Are We Giving Our Pups the Blues?

By Brandi K. Ormerod, PhD

Our stress levels may affect our four-legged friends, too.
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Every pooch parent loves the greeting that their beloved pooch gives them when they return home after a long day (or 30 seconds) – that over-the-top greeting brightens up the worst of days. Pooch parents also know that cartoonesque twinkle-toed exit that their pooch rapidly makes from the room to avoid loud human-to-human conflict. In fact, Stanley Coren, a dog-behavior expert and emeritus professor in the Psychology Department at the University of British Columbia explains that increasing evidence suggests that “dogs read our emotions, and they respond accordingly.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that a recent study published by Dr. Lina Roth, a zoologist at Sweden’s Linkoping University shows that owners may be transmitting generalized stress and anxiety to their beloved dogs. Dr. Roth and her group identified 58 dog and woman owner pairs. She conducted dog and owner personality tests and collected hair samples from each dog and owner on two separate occasions (during summer and then winter) to measure cortisol levels over an extended time-period. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone.

Heightened cortisol levels are associated with depression & early cognitive aging.
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Dr. Roth and her group found that owners with chronically high cortisol levels had dogs with chronically high cortisol levels, suggesting that dogs synchronize their stress levels to their humans’ stress levels. Synchronization between dog and owner cortisol levels was stronger when the dog-owner pair included competing (versus pet) dogs or female (versus male) dogs but was unaffected by age (dog or human), owner work status or dog physical activity level. While several lines of evidence have shown that an owner or handler can transmit stress during a specific event to their dog (i.e. an agility competition), this is the first report that owners may transmit chronic generalized stress and anxiety to their dog.

What does this all mean? When humans and other animals encounter events that require a reflexive response (i.e. running from a large snake that crosses your path), elevated cortisol levels help execute that response quickly. However, if cortisol levels stay elevated over time in humans and in research animals for either physiological or psychological reasons, they are associated with depression, early cognitive aging and brain changes that compromise learning and memory. Discovering whether our pet dogs experience similar effects from catching our chronic blues requires further research, but it may be worth improving your outlook on life if you notice that your pup has become lethargic and depressed!

Wanna beat the blues? Spend time with your pup!
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Interestingly, Dr. Roth and her group replicated an earlier finding showing that neurotic owners have dogs with lower cortisol levels. They argue that this somewhat counterintuitive finding suggests that neurotic owners form strong bonds with their dogs that alleviate stress levels all-around. If they are correct, then working on your relationship with your pup may just help you both beat the blues!

Sources

Arnold, C. (2019). If you’re chronically stressed, your dog could be too. National Geographic pdf

Ogle, W.O., Speisman, R.B., Ormerod, B.K. (2013). Potential of treating age-related depression and cognitive decline with nutraceutical approaches: a mini review. Geontology, 59:23. pdf

Sundman, A-S., Poucke, E.V., Svensson Holm A-C., Faresjӧ, Å., Theodorsson E., Jensen P & Roth L.S.V. (2019). Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. Scientific Reports, 9:7391. pdf

Brandi Ormerod has an extensive background in academic research focusing on animal cognition. Today, she's also an owner of Camp Run-A-Mutt Gainesville, Florida. You can learn more about Brandi by visiting Camp Run-A-Mutt Gainesville and their Facebook page.

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