Dogs can 'catch' stress

Maricruz Casares
Junio 8, 2019

New research finds that throughout a dog's life, the stress levels of a canine and his or her human tend to rise and fall together. But a hint would possibly well lie within the indisputable truth that the link is stronger with competitive canines than in pet pooches.

The team also found ties between an owner's reported personality and their dog's emotional state. This was most apparent among female dogs, which the researchers say might be more attuned to their owner's emotions.

But the latest research demonstrates the extent to which that psychological connection is a two-way street. Return from work in a consistently foul mood and even if you don't actually kick the dog - please don't! - your furry friend's stress level is likely to rise accordingly.

The study, authored by researchers at Linköping University, examined the concentration of cortisol, a stress hormone, in a few centimeters of hair from 33 Shetland sheepdogs, 25 border collies and their respective human owners. Cortisol is stored in hair as it grows in proportion to the amount in the blood, enabling a measurement of how stressed someone has been over the months before the sample is taken. Many people worry about the effect of a stressful lifestyle on their long-term health, but how many of us think about how our lifestyle, and our own stress levels, affect the health of our pets? This information was obtained by the use of recognised personality surveys, filled in by the owners.

Researchers measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the hair of both dogs and their owners, and found that they changed shifted up and down in tandem.

Though the seasons can impact one's cortisol levels, the research team did not find a difference in the mirroring of HCC levels between summer and winter.

"It was the owner's personality that influenced the dog's hair cortisol level, rather than the dog's personality itself", Roth says. Researchers have used the term "human-dog-dyad" extensively over the years to describe humankind's relationship with dogs, due to the way in which we have evolved together over 15,000 years. They examined hair from the dog owners and their dogs, looking at the concentrations of a hormone called cortisol, a chemical released into the bloodstream and absorbed by hair follicles in response to stress.

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But they didn't. Canine cortisol levels did not seem to rise and fall with their position on the temperamental spectrum from fearful to calm.

That, the researchers wrote, suggests that "it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of their owners rather than the owners responding to the stress in their dogs".

Brian Hare, a Duke University professor of evolutionary biology and expert in animal cognition, cautioned that the findings show only an association at this point.

"Maybe this knowledge could help us match dog and owner that is better for both from a stress-management point of view", said Roth.

The new research suggests some intriguing trends for researchers to explore in the future. This means that for these dogs, their cortisol levels rose and fell in unison with their owner's. The same was true of dogs engaged in competitive agility and other intensive training activities compared to dogs that served strictly as companions.

"It could be the interaction and the training between competing dogs and their owners that increases the emotional closeness and generates the stronger long-term stress synchronization", Roth said in an email.

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