Data shows that Americans are more emotionally worked up than ever. Although anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S. every year, studies show that nearly eight in 10 Americans sometimes or frequently feel stressed on a daily basis. But while Americans and Brits alike should take steps to reduce their stress to improve their own well-being, there may be another compelling reason to eliminate this emotional tension: your dog is taking on your stress because they just love you that much.
There are over 75 million pet dogs in the U.S., and according to a recent study involving a small group of Swedish residents and their dogs (all Shetland sheepdogs and border collies), it was revealed that the pooches seemed to mirror their humans’ stress levels over time. Through personality questionnaires and hair analysis for cortisol levels, a significant correlation was discovered. Nearly all of the dogs, in both winter and summer, exhibited stress hormone levels that matched those of their owners, meaning that these levels actually fluctuated in sync with their humans.
Interestingly, the correlation was not influenced by dog personality or the dogs’ activity levels. That said, it’s important to note that less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of activity per day. Since exercise can reduce stress levels in humans, it’s possible that increasing human activity levels could have a positive effect of the cortisol levels found in their pets. What’s more, female dogs were found to have a stronger connection to their owners’ stress levels than male dogs were, with further evidence to suggest that female dogs’ oxytocin levels also mirrored those of their owners.
While our bond with man’s best friend is nothing new, this study brings to light the negative effects our own unaddressed stress may have on our pups. Stress in dogs has been linked to loss of appetite, digestive issues, lowered immune systems, and even behavioral issues like aggression. Considering that nearly 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, it’s up to the owners to do everything they can to alleviate stress in both themselves and their pets.
But, of course, dogs can serve an important purpose for humans who are perpetually high-strung. The study actually found that people who considered themselves to be neurotic had dogs with lower cortisol levels throughout the research period. This suggests that, in the long run, the bond between dog and human can improve stress levels for both pets and humans.
In addition, not all instances of stress can be classified as “bad” stress; cortisol levels may spike in dogs when it’s time to go for a walk, for example. So while the results don’t definitively point to negative outcomes, the data does show that our dogs are probably more in tune with our emotions than we ever realized.
Explains senior study author Lina Roth, “Dogs are quite good at understanding humans. They’e definitely better at understanding us than we are at understanding them.”