Smells Like Trouble: Do Pets Feel Our Stress?

Studies suggest that dogs—and perhaps other companion animals—take on human emotions as their own. The connection implies that human self-care and companion animals' health are closely intertwined.

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Is the presidential campaign making your pet sick? While the campaign itself may not be, your inadvertent response to it could be impacting your companion animal’s health. Recent findings imply that chronic stress can take emotional and physical tolls on our canine companions.

Peer-reviewed studies suggest that dogs not only smell human emotions but experience them as their own. In 2017, University of Naples biologist Biagio D’Aniello and his colleagues arranged for human volunteers to watch videos intended to provoke fear, happiness, or a neutral response. The team then collected samples of the volunteers’ sweat and presented the samples to dogs. By monitoring the dogs’ behaviors and heart rates, the researchers discovered that dogs presented with the fear samples showed more signs of stress than those exposed to neutral or happy smells.

Such profound emotional responses to scent may seem foreign to humans. Dogs’ olfactory sense is believed to be 40 times greater than ours, and cats’ sense of smell is an estimated 10 times more powerful. “The role of the olfactory system has been largely underestimated, maybe because our own species is more focused on the visual system,” D’Aniello states. The study’s findings suggest that dogs—and perhaps other companion animals—take on human emotions as their own. Other peer-reviewed academic studies confirm that human stress is contagious for our canine companions.

Veterinary research demonstrates that dogs and cats suffering from chronic anxiety or depression may consequently experience physical illness. Stress activates nerve and hormonal signals in the animal brain, prompting the adrenal glands to release cortisol. According to the Mayo Clinic, “The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems.” Chronic stress has a similar effect on companion animals, impairing their immune systems and increasing their susceptibilities to infection and disease. When humans inadvertently cause their dogs’ stress through smell, the dogs’ physical wellbeings may also be compromised.

How do you know if your pet is stressed out? The most common symptoms of chronic stress in dogs and cats include decreased appetite, loss of interest in activities, lack of or excess grooming, frequent hiding or avoidance, destructive behaviors, and urinating/defecating in the house (for dogs) or outside the litter box (for cats). Knowing these warning signs can help human caretakers to identify when our pets may need veterinary care. Observing these symptoms in our companion animals may also serve as roundabout reminders to evaluate our own mental health.

Experts recommend several different strategies to reduce the impacts of negative human emotions on companion animals’ mental and physical health. D’Aniello suggests showering after a difficult day to remove the smell of uncomfortable emotions. But according to Rachel Augusta, a certified holistic animal care provider, “For some of us, we’d be showering all day.” She suggests a different response. “We can start by tapping into our own joy and happiness,” Augusta says.

Human self-care can be a form of proactive healthcare for our companion animals. “Think about yourself as perfume. If you were a perfume bottle, based on the percentages of your emotions, what would you smell like? Would you be 40 percent happiness? 50 percent depression?” asks Augusta. More dedicated and effective self-care may result in improved health, for both humans and their companion animals.

During tense times, such as high-stakes election seasons, difficult human emotions can take a heavy toll on our furry friends. Augusta’s heaviest workload coincides, not surprisingly, with federal elections. Her best advice? Follow your companion animal’s lead. Find the sunny spots. Play with something sparkly. Enjoy life. Your pet will thank you for it.

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