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Health & Wellness

Is your dog going prematurely gray? Stress may be at play

Stress can make humans turn prematurely gray and now there's evidence our four-legged furry companions may suffer a similar fate.

Young dogs that are anxious or impulsive are more likely to have a gray muzzle than their calmer counterparts, a new study has found. It’s the first research to look at premature graying in dogs, said co-author and Colorado-based veteran animal behaviorist Camille King.

“I was not at all surprised by the results,” King told TODAY. “For many years, I noticed that dogs I saw in my practice for anxiety or impulsivity issues were often graying early.”

“I immediately thought of the presidents,” added Temple Grandin, a co-author of the study and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. “Every single one of the presidents has looked horrible at the end of the presidency… they aged quickly.”

As dogs get older, it’s common for them to lose pigment in their facial hair, just like humans. But why do some young pups become white-haired?

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Courtesy Thomas Smith
This little pooch was one of the dogs included in the study of young canines who are prematurely gray around the muzzle.

For the study, King and her colleagues photographed 400 young dogs, 1 to 4 years old, mostly found during visits to dog parks and dog shows. Their owners filled out a detailed questionnaire that included ratings of each dog’s level of fear, anxiety and impulsivity. The researchers wanted to know if the dog whines or barks when left alone at home, for example, or if it cringes, cowers, hides, or tries to avoid handling when at the vet.

Fearful of loud noises, strangers

When they crunched the data, they found dogs that showed higher levels of anxiety and impulsivity were also more gray around the muzzle, regardless of size, medical issues or whether they were spayed or neutered.

When dogs were particularly fearful of loud noises, and unfamiliar animals and people, that “significantly predicted” muzzle grayness.

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Female dogs also showed higher levels of gray than males. King didn’t have an explanation why, though she guessed it may be related to hormones. Grandin believes females tend to get more anxious, which she has seen in other animals.

Dogs really are like us

King, who is also a nurse and works with people suffering from severe anxiety disorders, sees many parallels between humans and dogs.

“It is interesting that for many years, I have given anti-anxiety/anti-depressant medications to individuals with mental health problems. And now we use the same medications for canines,” she said.

“People who are anxious tend to avoid situations that cause them anxiety. Canines can also be avoidant in environments that cause them to be anxious. So, I believe humans and canines do experience many similarities when we are addressing anxiety disorders.”

Jason Merritt / Getty Images
"I can walk through my neighborhood at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and hear dogs whine inside the houses. They’re not very happy because they’re home alone,” said Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University. “Dogs want to have companions.”

If you’re a dog owner and you see your young pup prematurely sporting a white muzzle, it could be an indicator of anxiety, fear or impulsivity issues, the authors note.

King recommends consulting with your veterinarian because there are genetic factors that can also be at play.

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Which dogs are best for children, apartment dwellers, empty nesters?

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If your dog is anxious, your vet could develop a behavior modification program that may include desensitizing and counter-conditioning to a specific situation, and training the dog to have better coping skills.

Not happy home alone

A pressure wrap, like the ThunderShirt, has been shown to reduce heart rate in dogs with anxiety, King found in another study. Some owners have had good luck with Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) and reported a calmer dog, she added.

Grandin’s hypothesis is that many dogs are having “a really bad time” staying home alone all day.

“I can walk through my neighborhood at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and hear dogs whine inside the houses. They’re not very happy because they’re home alone,” Grandin said. “Dogs want to have companions.”

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When dogs are home, provide enrichment for them, King urged.

“Eight-, or ten- or 12-hour shifts for a dog to be home alone, is a long time. They are social beings,” she said. “Most important is to build a relationship with the dog based in respect and trust.”

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