Research Breakdown on Pet Anxiety: How Human Stress Affects Your Dog

Anyone with a close bond with their dog knows how canines share equally in ours joys and sadness. They look to us for direction, and when we aren’t happy, they aren’t happy either. You might be surprised to know just how much you’re affecting your dog, however, particularly when it comes to stress and pet anxiety.

According to research published in the journal Scientific Reports, dogs mirror their owner’s stress levels, right down to the presences of long-term stress hormones in the body. 

Research on Pet Anxiety

  • Since 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) has released an annual report on stress statistics in the United States. In 2020, the numbers were shocking, indicating just how severely the global pandemic has affected mental health. Almost 80 percent of individuals cited the pandemic as a significant source of stress in their life, with nearly half (49 percent) of adults stating it has had a negative effect of their behavior.
  • Now, take those numbers and complicate them with the fact there are nearly 70 million dogs living in the United States, potentially mirroring their owner’s stress levels.
  • An astonishing 72.5 percent of dogs already exhibit symptoms of pet anxiety, according to research, and while there are indications toward genetic influences, some of that pet anxiety may be directly related to stress going on in the human world.  
  • “We found that the levels of long-term cortisol in the dog and its owner were synchronised, such that owners with high cortisol levels have dogs with high cortisol levels, while owners with low cortisol levels have dogs with low levels”, explained Ann-Sofie Sundman, principal author of the study, in a press release. 

The status of human stress and pet anxiety

Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” is released when the body feels the need to combat the physiological effects of stress. While cortisol in the short term is a positive and necessary part of stress mitigation, prolonged exposure can cause negative effects on the body, and its presence can be used to measure the body’s level of exposure.

Sundman went on to note the relationship between owner stress and pet anxiety did not appear to be a two-way street because the personality of the dogs studied remained unaffected in the long run. The personality of the owner, on the other hand, did change, suggesting the owner was the source of the stress rather than the sympathetic partner.“

Our results show that long-term stress hormone levels were synchronized between dogs and humans, two different species sharing everyday life,” concluded study authors. “This could not be explained by either physical activity or by the amount of training. Since the personality of the owners was significantly related to the HCC of their dogs, we 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.”

A closer look at the human-dog emotional relationship

This is not the first study to investigate relationships between human stress levels and dogs; in 2019, a study published in the journal Animals investigated the effects of canine interactions on anxiety and mood in university students.

During that study, researchers noted interacting with a dog had a positive effect on university students both in the realm of mood and anxiety management. Even just watching a dog in a video was enough to achieve the positive boost.

“Ultimately, the use of dogs whether they have been trained specifically for therapy or are general house-trained dogs, or even just the use of videos, can be a highly beneficial tool for universities to implement to help reduce depression and anxiety in students,” stated study authors. “The positive benefits associated with students being allowed to interact with dogs in university appears to be a suitable, relatively low-cost and effective way to enhance and sustain student psychological well-being.”

A growing body of research supports the correlation between pet ownership and decreased stress. In 2002, research revealed pet owners were less stress when performing difficult tasks when their pet was with them, even when compared to being with a significant other or a friend. There are even reports that being around dogs can help cancer patients and children with learning disabilities and difficulties.

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How we can help our canine companions

Because dogs do so much for our mental health and wellbeing, many owners may feel distressed to know outside influences, like work stress and relationship stress, can trickle down and affect canine companions, but there are things you can do to help ensure your dog’s good mental health and relieve pet anxiety even if you are feeling the pressures of stress.

Physical Contact
The power of touch is well-known in the human world, but it is equally as soothing to your dog. To help relieve pet anxiety, take some time to pet your dog or have a cuddle on the couch. You may find it does you a world of good, as well.

Exercise
Exercise releases feel-good chemicals, called endorphins, in the brains of humans and animals. Getting out and going for a walk or a run is a great way to help both you and your dog feel better about the world. If you aren’t feeling up to it, find other ways to encourage your dog to exercise, like playing fetch, to help decreased pet anxiety.

Massage
While a quality cuddle from your dog is often good enough to improve both of your moods, the benefits of massage are not something to ignore. Anxiety and stress often causes muscles to become tense. Massage pairs the power of touch with the power of muscle stimulation, providing the best of both worlds.

Anxiety Coats
The commercial market has a variety of weighted vests for dogs experiencing more extreme forms of pet anxiety. These vests provide a “swaddling” effect, which research shows helps create a sense of comfort, protection, and calm. These vests are particularly helpful for dogs that have noise anxieties, but can be used for any stressful situation.

Music
Music as a form of stress relief can often be overlooked; in the animal world it is typically suggested as a means of drowning out other noises that might be considered stressful. Music has plenty of its own therapeutic benefits, however; calming music has been shown in test subjects to be as effective as medication in the reduction of stress.

Nutraceuticals
Without a doubt, if you are worried your stress is contributing to your dog’s stress, doing things together that are beneficial for both people and pet anxiety is the best option. Not all owners have the luxury of being able to get out often enough for a run with their dog, though, and some may live in places where leaving music on all day is disruptive to neighbors. No matter what your circumstances may be, the addition of a neutraceutical, or nutritional supplement, to your dog’s diet can be a great way to help curb pet anxiety. 

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While the most common items on the market focus on mild, natural sedating effects from melatonin, thiamin, chamomile, L-Theanine or L-tryptophan, many owners are investigating the benefits of CBD (cannabidiol) oils and CBD hemp dog treats.

Research in the field of CBD and veterinary products is on-going, many pet owners and doctors are seeing the benefits through case by case usage, and a 2014 animal study demonstrated antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects due to the way CBD interacts with serotonin in the brain.

While CBD can offer owners an option for natural pet anxiety relief, use of these products should be with a veterinarian’s blessing. CBD is still well in the research phase, and interactions with other medicines have been noted through clinical testing. If you are interested in trying this option, be sure to consult with your veterinary team before starting a program.

Written by: Mead Johnston
Mead is an experienced dog trainer, writer, and lover of animals. She has always been surrounded by animals and had a passion for learning more about them every day. This passion grew tremendously when Mead brought home a Great Pyrenees x Golden Retriever named Mac in 2018. Mead has continued to learn more about dogs whenever possible and wherever possible, while also helping so many wonderful clients. Her goal is help her clients and their dogs become confident in their daily lives. As a dog trainer, she often helps clients who are starting off with a puppy or they might have an older dog that is presenting challenging behaviours. Mead believes in the all-natural uses of Pet CBD to help our furry loved ones live longer, happier and healthier lives.

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