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How a Pet Owner's Stress Can Affect Their Dog


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Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

It’s been said that emotions are more contagious than the common cold. Now, you’d think that anyone with elementary aged children would beg to differ—have you seen the amount of nose wiping that goes on in a kindergarten classroom? But as I read study after study, I realized how true this notion really is. Psychologists even have a name for it: emotional contagion.

Bad work situation? Financial distress? Ailing family member? All understandable reasons why one might feel irritable, stressed and even depressed. The effects of these emotions, while unintentional, inevitably bleeds onto those you are closest to. Spouse, children and friends may be the first to come to mind, but a new study reveals that we can’t ignore how our long-term stress affects our furry friend, the family dog.

Previous studies have shown that short-term stress seems contagious between dogs and owners, but this is the first known study to show interspecies synchronization of long-term stress, according to researchers at Linköping University in Sweden.

“The evidence of short-term stress contagion within a species is compelling,” the researchers said in their report, referring to past studies. “Here, we found synchronized long-term stress levels in dog-human dyads, containing both pet and competing dogs of two different dog breeds, providing further evidence to the strong relationship between humans and dogs. Long-term stress contagion has previously been shown between human mothers and both their infants and their older children. However, this is the first study on long-term interspecies stress synchronization.”

The study, published early June in Scientific Reports, included 58 dog-human pairs: 33 Shetland sheepdogs and 25 border collies and their female owners. The researchers analyzed their hair cortisol concentrations—often called the stress hormone—at two separate occasions, reflecting levels during previous summer and winter months.

“We could show that the dogs’ long-term cortisol levels repeatedly correlated to that of their owners,” Lina Roth, Ph.D., principal investigator, said in an email interview with Pet Product News.

Since cortisol secretion can be affected by physical activity, the dogs’ activity levels were monitored for one week. The study included both pet dogs and competing dogs, such as those involved with agility and/or obedience. Owners went on with their daily routines.

The researchers also took into account the personality traits of each, which was determined through an owner-completed “Dog Personality Questionnaire” and “The Big Five Inventory” owner survey.

“We did not find any indications that dogs that were more physically active had higher hair cortisol levels,” said Roth, a senior lecturer in the department of physics, chemistry and biology at Linköping University. “However, the personality of the owner revealed to have an effect on the dog’s long-term stress, while the dog’s own personality had little effect.”

These findings suggest that it is the dogs that mirror the stress levels of their owners rather than the owners responding to the stress in their dogs, the researchers concluded.

The researchers now plan to study other breeds.

“By including male owners and also other breeds that are not selected to cooperate with humans, we will be able to show if this interspecies synchronization could apply for all dog-human dyads,” Roth said. “Our next question would be if it could also apply to other pets.”

In the meantime, Roth suggested that owners spend time with their dog to ease stress levels.

“Just be with your dog,” Roth said. “There are studies showing that play and interaction has beneficial effects on both dogs and humans so just be with your dog in a way you both appreciate.”

 

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