Experiencing fear is not pleasant. Any human will tell you this. As one of our most basic emotions, fear functions as a rapid-fire means of communicating to our bodies “DANGER, DANGER – GET AWAY NOW!!”
As a physiological state, fear is associated with a set of bodily changes that are decidedly uncomfortable. Respiration and pulse increase, we become hyper-vigilant of our surroundings, our hearts pound, and we may experience a strong inclination to flee (especially considering that Tella Tubbies run really fast despite their portly dimensions).
Dogs who experience fear exhibit the same physiological signs as humans and most likely also suffer the same unpleasant emotional state. Common fears/anxieties in dogs include separation anxiety, fear of unfamiliar people or dogs, and sensitivity to thunder or loud noises. When these problems persist over long periods of time, they will definitely reduce a dog’s quality of life and can negatively affect the relationship between the dog and his or her owner. In addition, long-term exposure to stress may affect dogs’ physical health and longevity.
Background: There is evidence in humans and in laboratory species that experiencing prolonged periods of stress and anxiety increase an individual’s susceptibility to disease and risk of premature death (1-3). A possible underlying cause for this effect may be chronic activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis, which is part of the body’s natural defense against physical and psychological stressors. It is the HPA system that is responsible for elevated levels of cortisol, that well-known hormone that prepares one’s body for flight or fight. Although cortisol is highly effective in the short-term, prolonged exposure to high circulating levels is associated with a number of chronic health problems, such as hypertension, insulin resistance, heart problems and immune disturbances. Increased oxidative stress also occurs during exposure to physical or emotional stressors, and is associated with an increased rate of cellular aging and death. Although the exact underlying mechanisms are not fully understood, it is well-established that living in fear is not good for us.
What about dogs? Although the relationship between prolonged stress, health and lifespan is an active area of research in human subjects, until recently this association had not been studied in dogs.
The Study: Nancy Dreschel, a veterinarian at Pennsylvania State University, asked the question: “Are dogs who are more anxious or fearful at increased risk for health problems and a shortened life span?”(4). The study used a web-based questionnaire to collect information from people who owned a dog that had died within the previous five-year period. The survey included questions about the dog’s demographics, social environment, behavior, training history, health, and daily interactions with the owner. A set of questions adapted from the validated C-BARQ program was used to collect detailed information about the presence or absence of fear-related and anxious behaviors. Age and cause of death were also recorded. The survey was available on-line for 7 months and resulted in 721 complete surveys that were used in the analysis.
The Results: As expected, body size and weight were negatively correlated with lifespan. It is well-established that large/giant dogs have a shorter average life span than small and medium size dogs. In addition, neutered dogs had a longer lifespan than intact dogs and accidental deaths were associated with a younger age of death. When body size, neuter status, and accidental death were controlled for, several significant relationships were found between behavior and lifespan:
- A significant negative correlation was found between the fear of unfamiliar people and lifespan. This means that dogs who experienced a lifelong fear of strangers tended to die at a younger age than dogs who did not experience this type of fear. However, the earlier age of death in this subset of fearful dogs was not associated with any particular disease. (Because long-term activation of the HPA axis negatively affects the immune system, it was speculated that fearful dogs would be more susceptible to cancer, infections, or immune-mediated disorders. However, this relationship was not found in these data).
- The presence of non-social fears (fear of new places or things) and separation anxiety were both positively associated with chronic skin problems. The underlying mechanism might be the effects of long-term stress on the immune system and skin health, a relationship that has been reported in human subjects. However, this study’s design did not allow determination of causation, so conclusions regarding the underlying cause for this relationship could not be made.
- Lifespan was strongly and positively correlated with owner-reported “good” behavior. Dogs who were perceived as being well-behaved by their owner lived longer than those who were reported to be less well-behaved. Multiple factors may have been in play with this relationship. Because problem aggression was not specifically studied, euthanasia for aggression may have been a significant contributing factor. Less dramatically, owners who reported their dogs as less well-behaved may have been less bonded to the dog and more likely to euthanize at a younger age or to decline treatment for a serious illness. It is also possible that well-behaved dogs tend to live longer because they experience a less stressful and more harmonious home environment with their owner. Because none of these factors were studied separately, the exact cause or causes of this relationship could not be teased out, but certainly warrants additional study.
Take Away for Dog Folks: Remember that survey studies provide information through the eyes of the owner and, in this case, the collected data were also retrospective (historical) in nature. These factors must always be considered when making conclusions about survey studies. In addition, the statistical tests used in this study tell us if two or more factors are related (i.e. correlated), but cannot provide information about the direction of that relationship or if there is another underlying cause that was not identified. Even considering these limitations, the results of this study suggest that prolonged fear and anxiety not only impact a dog’s quality of life, but may also contribute to an early death and increased susceptibility to chronic health (skin) problems. Helping dogs to overcome fear is vital to improving their lives and our relationships with them. For those of you who are working with these dogs on a daily basis, thank you for all that you do (5).
References and Information Sources:
- Cavigelli SA, McClintock MK. Fear of novelty in infant rats predicts adult corticosteroid dynamics and an early death. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 2003;100:16131-16136.
- McEwen BS. Stressed or stressed out? Journal of Psychiatric Neuroscience 2005; 30:315-318.
- Schultz R, Beach SR. Caregiving as a risk factor for mortality. Journal of the American Medical Association 1999; 282:2215-2219.
- Dreschel NA. The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2010; 125:157-162.
- An excellent source of information for working with fearful dogs is Debbie Jacob’s book “Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog and her blog, Fearful Dogs.
15 thoughts on “Fear Factor”
Our little girl was just put in quarantine for 10 days and I am so upset. She gets so scared away from us. She was scooped up at the vet office while I was leading her in and nipped the person. She had her shots two years ago but is required by law to have them every year. I hate the idea since my cat got cancer from his yearly shots… In Pa it was every 3 years. Now I am worried about her mental state after 10 days in quarantine…I sent her toys and her towel with her. I was in the process of telling them she needed a muzzel when it happened…How can I help her when I can’t even see her? This is breaking our hearts and is probably making her sick….
Leeanne, we’ve been using a thunder shirt for a few years now, our Gypsy loves it, I feel it gives her a sence of security, and takes the edge off. When I got the shirt, it came with 30, or 40 days warranty, with option to return if dissatisfied. Good luck!
I have a rat terrier she is scared to death of thunderstorms and loud noises people keep telling me to get a thunder shirt do they work?
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Just a thoughtful reminder that helping a dog work through its fears is a wonderful (and healthy) thing. Says the owner of a skittish dog 3 years into recovery and getting bolder every day 🙂
Agree 100 percent, Therese! Thanks for reading and congrats on your success with your dog – wonderful to hear!
This is a very interesting post. Sometimes we do not consider how much damage can cause fear or stress in our pets, even in humans, if you constantly expose your body to stress, the damage it causes is at molecular level. There is so much things that you can do to give a better quality of life to your dog. This study is very helpful to understand that. Great post!
Hi Julie, Thanks for your comment. Although the results of this survey study must be interpreted with caution, you identify what I think is one of its most important outcomes, and that was to bring attention to the question of how long-term anxiety or fear in our dogs may affect their overall health, quality of life and longevity (and emphasizes how important it is to try to help them). Thanks for reading! Linda
Thank you for yet another great write-up. Nancy Dreschel is a good friend of mine, and it gives you an idea how modest she is that I didn’t even know about this study coming out! I love when studies give us a little more information and raise more questions for research–how science works! Nice write-up!
To those reading this who have fearful dogs, there are definitely ways to help, and often, to help considerably, so dogs need not be doomed to a life of fear and stress!
Fascinating article thank you, I have a mini wire dachshund who has suffered extreme fear of other dogs since a pup (no early socialisation outside pack before we got him at 13w)… He learned to growl and bite to get rid of dogs. My mini smooth gets very distressed in busy, noisy places like town centres. I try to avoid as much as possible because I hate them upset but I’d love to take the fear away. I really enjoy your blog 🐶🐶💕
Hi “Parakitamol” – Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that sometimes just avoiding the triggers of fear/anxiety is the best way to go, as some fear problems in dogs are very difficult if not impossible to reduce. It sounds like you always consider your dogs’ life quality and welfare with what you ask of them – imho, that is the very best type of caretaker. Thanks for reading – I am glad that you are enjoying the blog! Linda P.S. If you have not already checked out Debbie Jacobs blog and book (listed in the references), take a look at her work as she has some great advice for living with fearful dogs and is a very compassionate and kind person.
This subject is of high interest for me too. Thank you for posting!
I have a 11 year old dog with severe fear and anxiety to noise, fireworks and thunder storms in particulate, and we live in Florida. I started clicker training our new puppy, Jasper, we rescued almost three years ago, and also did some clicker training with our older dog, Gypsy, and the cat too. I want to share some amazing benefits.
Gypsy had been suffering with horrible anal gland blockages and infections, which I attribute to her refusal to relieve herself for prolonged times during our rainy season. For the last couple of years I had to take her to the vet for checking and emptying the glands every three weeks or so…
With clicker training we made huge progress in her desensitization to noise, at the last three visits to the vet, her glands were EMPTY! Her quality in life has greatly improved overall.
I apologize for the long post, I just had to share and convey some hope to others dealing with this very difficult problem.
Hi Lana, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with Gypsy. I think that clicker training is such a perfect choice for dogs who have anxiety issues, as it puts them completely in control of their learning experiences and so is such a natural confidence builder. Such a wonderful benefit to your Gypsy – not only were you able to help her to tolerate noises better, but you also saw such a great improvement to her quality of life and health! (And, not a long post at all – thanks for writing). Best, Linda
This study is almost hard to read, as I have a large breed fearful dog (female German shepherd, 3 years old), but it makes sense to me that lifelong anxiety would negatively affect lifespan. Thanks for sharing this research and for the other studies you promote. Appreciate your devotion to canine science!
Hi Abby, Thanks for your comment. I understand your worries and the difficulty of reading this study so well. My husband and I have lived with and loved Golden Retrievers for many years, and I literally feel ill each time that I read a new study of the prevalence of cancer in the breed. Still, I continue to read and learn, as I know that you do for your wonderful girl. Please do keep in mind that results from all studies are average values from samples which apply to the population of dogs, and cannot tell one what to expect with complete certain for an individual. So many factors influence a dog’s life story and ultimately his or her life span, and I am sure that your girl is getting the very best of love and care from you – that is what is most important of all. Thanks again for reading and following. Linda