Study: Stress Is Making American Dogs Go Prematurely Gray

A surprising new study suggests that it’s not just Americans who are under extreme stress these days but our dogs too — and the stress is making our canine companions go prematurely gray, according to CNN.

The study, which was suggested and co-authored by famous animal behavior expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin and published in this month’s edition of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, looked at 400 dogs who were under four years old to see if there was a correlation between their anxiety levels and going prematurely gray.

“Normally, dogs wouldn’t be gray at age 4,” Grandin said.

Animal behaviorist and fellow author Camille King, who owns the Canine Education Center in Denver, says she noticed a few years ago that many impulsive and anxious dogs seemed to be turning prematurely gray. She says she told Grandin her observations and Grandin encouraged her to design a study to look into a possible correlation.

“The first thing I thought of when she told me that were the presidents, and how they age and get prematurely gray,” said Grandin, who is currently a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

King and Grandin enlisted the aid of fellow animal behavioralists Peter Borchelt and Thomas Smith to visit dog parks, dog shows, veterinary clinics, and other locations frequented by dog owners in order to study 400 dogs in Colorado and administer dog behavior questionnaires to their owners, according to Northern Illinois University Today.

In the journal article, “Anxiety and impulsivity: Factors associated with premature graying in young dogs,” the researchers said that the dog owners were told that the purpose of the study involved dog lifestyle, in order to prevent response bias. They said that “distractor items” were also added to the survey to prevent the owner from guessing the purpose of the survey.

Measures of anxiety in the dogs included answers such as destruction when dogs were left alone, loss of hair during vet exams or being in a new place, and cringing or cowering in response to groups of people. Examples of behaviors that indicated impulsive behaviors included jumping on people, not being able to get calm, loss of focus, and hyperactivity after exercise.

The researchers had independent raters examine photos taken of the dogs at the sites and rate the extent of the dogs’ muzzle grayness. Only non-white dogs were used for the study, in order to show graying.

The researchers found that dogs between one and four years of age whose owners reported higher signs of anxiety tended to show a greater extent of premature muzzle graying than the less anxious dogs. Dogs whose owners rated them as more impulsive also tended to have more prematurely gray muzzles.

The study showed that dogs that had more anxious and impulsive behaviors did tend to show premature graying.

“In our sample of young dogs, latent variable regression showed that the extent of muzzle grayness was significantly and positively predicted by anxiety (p = 0.005) and impulsivity (p < 0.001).”

In addition, female dogs tended to have more premature gray hairs than male dogs. Dog size, whether the dogs were spayed or neutered, and the presence of medical problems did not significantly predict the extent of muzzle grayness, however.

Smith, who provided methodological and statistical expertise, said that he was surprised by the results of the study.

“At first, I was somewhat skeptical of the hypothesis,” he said. “However, when we analyzed the data, the results actually were quite striking.”

Grandin said the results provide important information for dog owners.

“This is an original, unique study that has implications for dog welfare,” she said.

[Featured Image by Puzzle/Shutterstock]