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December 17, 2005 — Having a sympathetic owner
did not lower the stress reaction of dogs that become anxious or
fearful during noisy thunderstorms but living in a multi-dog household
did, a Penn State study has found.
The study is among the first to measure, non-invasively, the
production of a specific stress hormone produced by both the dog and
its owner in response to stress in their home. The technique offers a
new tool to assess animal welfare in a wide variety of non-laboratory
settings, including high stress environments such as search and rescue
and police-related pursuit.
Dr. Nancy Dreschel, a veterinarian who conducted the study as part
of her work toward a doctoral degree in biobehavioral health, says,
"There were no effects of the owners' behavior or the quality of the
dog-owner relationship on the stress hormone response that we measured
in the canine. However, the presence of other dogs in the household was
linked to less pronounced stress reactivity and more rapid recovery of
the thunderstorm-phobic animal."
The study is detailed in the current (December) issue of the
journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, in a paper, "Physiological
and Behavioral Reactivity to Stress in Thunderstorm-phobic Dogs and
Their Caregivers." The authors are Dreschel, who is also an instructor
in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Dr. Douglas A. Granger,
associate professor of biobehavioral health.
Thunderstorm-anxious dogs not only suffer classic signs of fear,
including pacing whining and hiding, during a storm but also experience
a 207 percent spike in the production of cortisol, a hormone also
produced by humans during stress, the new study has shown.
Dreschel notes, "Thunderstorm anxiety in dogs is a very common
problem with reports of 15 to 30 percent of pet dogs affected. The
prevalence likely varies depending on location and the frequency and
intensity of storms."
To measure the cortisol response in both the dogs and their
caregivers, the researchers asked 19 dog-owner pairs, in which the dog
had been diagnosed as storm-phobic, to listen to a 5-minute recording
of a thunderstorm in their own home. The dog and its owner were both
videotaped during the listening session. The dogs included five
purebred golden retrievers, four other purebreds, including a corgi, a
keeshond, a border collie and a Labrador retriever, and 10 mixed breed
dogs over 15 pounds each.
Immediately prior to the listening session, both the dog and its
owner provided a saliva sample in which the cortisol could be measured.
The owner put a small cotton plug in his or her mouth to absorb saliva
and the dog chewed on a small, absorbent cotton rope, which became
saturated with saliva.
Twenty minutes after the 5-minute exposure to the storm recording,
saliva samples were collected again from both owner and dog and, then
once again, forty minutes after the listening session.
Dreschel says, "On average, the cortisol levels of the caregivers
did not increase. The owners probably did not show signs of stress
because they knew that the thunderstorm they were hearing was a
recording. The dogs probably did not know it was a recording; although,
one dog did fall asleep on the couch during the listening session."
Dogs that lived in multi-dog households had significantly less
overall change in cortisol compared to dogs that lived in single-dog
households. This finding corresponds to a less extreme reaction in dogs
from multi-dog households and more rapid and complete return to normal
following the listening session. However, dogs in multi-dog households
started out with slightly higher cortisol levels, which could indicate
that dogs living with other dogs are under more stress.
Dreschel does not recommend that the owners of dogs with
thunderstorm anxiety get additional dogs. She notes that there was no
difference in the behavioral response of the dogs in multi-dog
households vs. dogs in single-dog households.
After the study, Dreschel offered behavioral recommendations to the
participants. She notes that it is possible to de-sensitize dogs to
storms but that it doesn't always work. Efforts to reduce the anxiety
should be made, however, because of the toll on the dog and the owner.
The behavior of storm-phobic animals can cause owners to experience
lack of sleep, destruction of household items and furnishings as well
as worry about their dog's physical and mental health.
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