Stressed out? Your dog may feel it too

Stressed out? Your dog may feel it too, study suggests – by Jeremy Rehm, washingtonpost.com – June 6, 2019

After reading this, I feel very sorry for my poor little dog. We spend almost all our time together (I take him everywhere with me in the car), so we’re extremely close and affected by each other.

I know that how we really feel cannot be hidden from our dogs, no matter how well our “acting OK” fools other humans, but I didn’t realize the depth and intensity of this invisible effect. Now I have another reason to get upset: my constant stress and worry about getting sufficient pain relief, not to mention the pain itself, is hurting my dog too.

When dog owners go through a stressful period, they’re not alone in feeling the pressure — their dogs feel it too, a new study suggests.  

Dog owners experiencing long bouts of stress can transfer it to their dogs, scientists report in a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

The Swedish researchers focused on 58 people who own border collies or Shetland sheepdogs. 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.

Depression, excessive physical exercise and unemployment are just a few examples of stress that can influence the amount of cortisol found in your hair, said Lina Roth of Linkoping University in Sweden.

Roth and her team found that the patterns of cortisol levels in the hair of dog owners closely matched that found in their dogs in both winter and summer months, indicating their stress levels were in sync.

She thinks the owners are influencing the dogs rather than the other way around because several human personality traits appear to affect canine cortisol levels.

The researchers don’t know what causes the synchronization in cortisol levels between humans and their pups. But a hint might lie in the fact that the link is stronger with competitive dogs than in pet pooches.

The bond formed between owner and competitive dogs during training may increase the canines’ emotional reliance on their owners, she said. That in turn could increase the degree of synchronization.

Those of us who are disabled by our pain and spending most of our time sitting and lying around the house with our dogs bond much more tightly that people who participate in “normal life”.

But why do people influence their dogs rather than vice versa? Perhaps people are “a more central part of the dog’s life, whereas we humans also have other social networks,” Roth said in an email.

When my social activities are so limited, my dog is absolutely a “central part” of my life. I’m so sad that this makes him more sensitive to my anxiety and depression. Now I’m hurting both of us with my out of control moods.

The study results are no surprise, said Alicia Buttner, director of animal behavior with the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha.

“New evidence is continually emerging, showing that people and their dogs have incredibly close bonds that resemble the ones that parents share with their children,” she said in an email.

But she said there isn’t enough evidence to assume that the influence goes only one way; it may go both ways.

I agree: when my dog is anxious or not feeling well I become even more attentive and focused on him. We are extremely vulnerable to each other.

Many other factors could affect a person or dog’s stress levels and possibly even dampen them, she said.

Buttner said cortisol levels don’t necessarily indicate “bad” stress. They instead can indicate a good experience like getting ready to go for a walk, she said.

Roth and her team plan to investigate whether other dog breeds will react to their owners the same way.

In the meantime, she offered advice to minimize how much stress dog owners may be causing their pets. Dogs that play more show fewer signs of being stressed, she said.

So “just be with your dog and have fun,” Roth said.

But since our dogs pick up our “real” feelings, they may not have much fun when they know how bad we’re feeling.

5 thoughts on “Stressed out? Your dog may feel it too

  1. Janet Komanchuk

    At the height of my fibromyalgia I know my two dogs knew how I was feeling. They key in on our ups and downs, our emotions and our pain. Unfortunately I tended to smother them and try to keep them even closer to me. This caused them additional stress. They needed to be themselves as much as possible. Realizing this too late, as they’ve both passed, If I had it to do over again I would encourage them to go for a walk, a car ride or whatever activity a friend offered to help both my beloved Charlie and Lili and me. My clinginess and dependence on them deprived them of fun walks and great sniffs with dear friends kind enough to offer.

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    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      We have to remember that dogs evolved/were sent to be our helpers/partners. Though they can’t “know it”, I believe a dog’s life is fulfilled when they are able to help their human. i strongly suspect they’d much rather lie in bed with you than go “out” with anyone else. (Of course they need occasional exercise, but thankfully not as regularly as humans do.)

      Just like we tend to their physical/material needs, they tend to (some of) our emotional needs – sounds like a match made in heaven :-)

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  2. canarensis

    I’ve worried about this since I got Kenta 6 years ago. There’s no question that he’s totally connected with my emotional states. He & I are like you and Jordie, Zyp; together all the time. I think the longest he’s gone without me is 5 hours, & that’s happened maybe 3 times in his entire life. I know what you mean about feeling guilty for transmitting the stress of pain & anxiety to them, but I try to remind myself that in a way, we’re sort of a god to our dogs (no, I’m not monstrously egotistical, it’s just as you said, we evolved together & the bond is incredibly strong, & they have that canine pack hierarchy thing going). So when I start to feel bad that my pain/anxiety is negatively affecting Kenta, I remind myself that there’s up sides to the relationship: they get to be with us 24/7, never get stuck out in the yard all day, & even tossing a ball from the couch is fun for them. For most dogs, it takes very little to make them happy, and just being with us all the time is a great base.

    I do wonder if his health problems –& he’s got a bunch of ’em– are “my fault,” from the extra stress. But OTOH, (like you) I do everything possible & move heaven & earth to get his problems treated and can monitor him every minute on his bad days. So I think the good for them outweighs the stress from us in a big way. Self serving? Maybe. You know I’m not inclined to optimism & sunny hearts ‘n’ flowers, but I have spent my whole life with animals, really paying attention to them, so there’s a conclusion I’m willing to draw (even based upon *GASP* anecdotal evidence); our lives are infinitely better for having them with us, and their lives have a huge bonus by being with us all the time & included in the all the details of our lives.

    I want to get myself a “Emotional Support Human” vest that matches his working dog vest.

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    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      From my lifetime with dogs, I also believe that it’s an incredibly symbiotic relationship: we and they are both infinitely better off with each other than alone.

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  3. Kathy C

    I try to make up for the hurt I have done to my dog. He hates it when I am on the computer and ignore him, he will come up and put his paw on the keyboard, or snuggle up behind me on the couch. He is 105 pounds, but thinks he is a lap dog or a chihuahua. I make up for it, by taking him to the river for a swim in the Summer, or up the mountain, and let him chase squirrels and snarks. Sometimes I think Sparky does not mind me too much, he has a lazy streak too. He is perfectly happy lounging around, and sometimes he will not go out if it is too cold or wet. Sparky has issues too, a case of heart worm as a pup, and a seizure disorder, so I have to make sure he gets his meds.

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