Our lives are filled with so many things that we don’t have any control over. From loadshedding and economic pressure to politics and daily deadlines. It is no wonder that most people struggle with anxiety and stress. The problem with that is that it also affects our pets, without us even realising it. Animaltalk spoke to Prof Nicoleen Coetzee, associate professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Pretoria, to find out exactly how this happens.
In a study titled Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners that was published on www.nature.com, it was reported that owners’ chronic stress can literally rub off on their pets. Hair from 58 dogs and their owners was studied, and the results showed that the dogs’ stress levels correlated with their owners’ stress levels.
When we stress, levels of hormones such as cortisol increase in the body, and these fluctuations get preserved in our hair and that of our pets. That’s how the scientists managed to study the stress levels.
“As indicated in the article, stress is often accompanied by hormonal changes. When we feel stressed, we release more of the stress hormone, cortisol. We also go into fight-or-flight mode, which increases adrenaline levels. Dogs have the amazing ability to smell these hormonal changes, and they are also very sensitive to our body language and tone of voice, which are often affected by stress.
“For example, some people suffering from stress become inactive. Instead of walking their pets, they would rather sleep. Their pets immediately realise that something is wrong because of the change in routine. In addition, the owner’s body language will also help them realise something is wrong.
“Just like humans, pets have mirror neurons in their brains. These are the neurons that we use to understand and mimic other people’s behaviour. Your stressed behaviour will then be mirrored by your dog,” says Prof Coetzee. And in a nutshell, that is how our stress levels affect our pets.
Prof Coetzee says that the best way to check for symptoms of stress is to listen to your body, since stress often manifests as a range of physiological symptoms, which might include some or all of the following:
- Unexplained bodily aches and pains
- Chest pain or feeling like your heart is racing; high blood pressure
Would you like to read the rest of this interesting article? Get the November/December 2023 edition of Animaltalk magazine from retailers now or order a digital or printed copy from www.coolmags.co.za.