Helping man’s stressed friend

Bronwyn Orr looks at how your mental health can affect your dog.

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

A study published earlier this month 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.

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.

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. Cortisol levels rose and fell in unison with their owner's.

This correlation was influenced by owner personality. 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 are more emotionally responsive than males.

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.

Researchers have long discussed the concept of what is called the "human-dog dyad'', a close bond between humans and dogs. This relationship, developed over 15,000 years, is unique in the animal world. There is evidence to suggest dogs evolved alongside us and consequently are in tune with our emotions and bond with us through eye contact.

Although many aspects of this inter-species relationship are positive (particularly for us), it's likely there are some drawbacks to this close relationship with dogs.

Dogs are sentient animals. This means they can experience both positive and negative emotions, such as pleasure, comfort, fear and anxiety.

A poor mental state, where a dog is regularly experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety, can lead to poor animal welfare.

If owners have an impact on the stress levels of their dogs, it means we also play a role in protecting their welfare.

The impact we have on our dog's stress levels goes both ways positive and negative. If we reduce our own stress levels, it's likely we will also reduce our dog's stress levels.

We know chronic stress is bad for both humans and dogs, increasing the likelihood we will get sick as well as decreasing our quality of life. If you don't work on decreasing your stress levels for your own sake, perhaps you will do it for your dog. - The Conversation

  • Bronwyn Orr is a veterinarian and PhD scholar at the University of Sydney.


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