The more scientists learn about dogs, the more we discover that our kinship with them is closer than we first imagined. Psychologically, they share many traits with us. One of these traits is the capacity to experience stress. And, like us, prolonged stress causes them to get gray hair.
The connection was first made by Camille King, a Denver-based animal behaviorist, who noticed a link between anxious behavior in dogs and premature graying. With the help of Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado University, she conducted a study which proved her theory. For dogs, experiencing stress leads to premature gray hair. Just like it does with us.
How much graying is normal? How do I know if my dog’s gray hair is premature?
You will generally see signs of graying by the age of seven or eight. Some breeds show gray hair more than others (dogs with black coats, for example).
Some breeds, such as poodles, possess a gene causing progressive graying of their coat, so this is not a sign of undue stress. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian with regard to what’s normal for your dog’s breed.
If your dog is showing visible graying before the age of five, it’s likely that his or her stress levels are higher than they should be.
What causes canine stress?
Stress is essentially caused when an organism is forced to undertake an activity that is unnatural for them. It also includes prolonging an activity that the organism is adapted to undergo only for short periods. The classic example is the ‘fight or flight’ emotional cluster. Humans are adapted to experience this only for short periods of time. A bear wanders into the campsite, we throw spears at it, the bear goes away, and normal life resumes. But for a policeman or a Wall Street stock trader, they might be experiencing this kind of ‘survival’ stress for an appreciable part of their day.
We need a certain amount of stress, of course, and different people or animals differ in their ability to handle stress.
I think my dog is stressed, what should I do?
You should, if you can afford it, take your dog to see an animal behaviorist. We know some people scoff at the idea of a psychologist for dogs, but the science on which it is based is sound. Dogs are complex creatures with a rich mental life and considerable cognitive ability. Obviously they can experience stress. The behaviorist will look at the dog’s routine, social life and their interaction with you and determine if and how undue stress is occurring and what you can do about it.
Note: if your dog is alone for large chunks of the day, you’ve probably found the source of the stress. Dogs are social animals, and are not adapted for solitary living. In the wild, a canid (wolf-like species, including dogs and coyotes) alone is either dying or has lost its pack. Your dog doesn’t understand where you’ve gone, why you’re not there, or when you’re coming back.
Take a stroll around your average neighborhood in the late morning and the first thing you’ll notice is a lot of ‘dog’ noise, including barking and howling. Being left home alone is awful for a dog, and the more intelligent the dog, the worse this is. This is perfectly illustrated by an emotional British documentary.
Tips to de-stress your dog
If you’re leaving your dog home alone for security reasons, you’re probably kidding yourself. Only certain dogs will actually protect property. Most dogs will only protect YOU, and you’re not home.
Consider enrolling your dog in a doggy daycare. Here, Fido will be stimulated, taken for walks, and given opportunities to play with humans and other dogs. But do your research: some of these facilities offer very little supervision and stimulation for the dog, and dogs are left in large groups of different sizes, ages and breeds to fend for themselves.
You could get your dog a friend. Some dogs form strong friendships with cats or even pigs, but it’s almost certainly better to get another dog. However, remember that 2 dogs will double your responsibilities and double your work. If you don’t take steps to enrich their environment (see tip below) you will have 2 stressed dogs, and probably other behavioral problems to boot.
Another possibility is enrichment toys. Give your dog mental work to do, and he’ll be less bored and anxious. Mental work also tires dogs out more than physical exercise. That doesn’t mean that physical exercise is not an option. Dogs need to get off property (for exercise and mental stimulation), so taking your dog for a good morning run (or brisk walk) could result in a dog that sleeps for most of the time you’re away. If they’re asleep, they won’t be so bored or anxious.
Finally, an animal behaviorist will provide you with strategies to deal with this, should this be the problem. Most of the advice will, in all probability, relate to training, brain work, enrichment, and off property activities.
Premature gray hair in your dog is not necessarily a cause for alarm, but it can be a warning sign, and should not be ignored. If your dog is experiencing stress or anxiety, the above steps should help. But, as always, it’s best to consult an expert if you can.