Dog ownership is plenty of furry company, tail wags and chase balls, and plenty of unconditional love. However, some dog owners also manage canine friends who struggle with mental illness.
A newly published study in PLOS One has examined the brain scans of fearful and non-anxious dogs and related them to behaviour.
The research team from Ghent University, Belgium, found that not only do our anxious canine friends have measurable differences in their brains related to their anxiety, but these differences are similar to those seen in humans with anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders in humans are varied and can be divided into several main types. In general, they represent high levels of anxiety, emotional sensitivity, and negative expectations. These disorders can be difficult to live with and sometimes difficult to treat, in part because of the varied and complex anxiety.
Research into fear in animals can help us understand what drives it and improve treatment for both humans and animals. The new study sought to examine possible pathways in the brain associated with anxiety in dogs. Understanding this could both improve the treatment of anxiety in veterinary medicine and reveal similarities to what we know about human anxiety.
Dogs with and without anxiety were recruited for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains. Dogs have been involved in awake fMRI studies before, but for this one, with dogs that could easily become stressed, the dogs were under general anesthesia.
Owners of the dogs also completed surveys about their pets’ behavior. The researchers performed data analysis and modeling of brain function, focusing on brain regions likely to show differences related to anxiety. Based on previous research on fear in animals and humans, the team called these brain regions the “fear circuit.”
They then analyzed whether there were differences between the brain function of fearful and non-anxious dogs, and whether those differences were actually related to fearful behavior.
The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences between fearful and non-anxious dogs. The main differences were in the communication routes and connection strength within the “fear circuit”. These differences were also linked to higher scores for certain behaviors in the surveys.
For example, anxious dogs had amygdalas (a part of the brain associated with fear processing) that were particularly efficient, suggesting a lot of experience with fear. (This is similar to findings from human studies.) In the behavioral surveys, owners of fearful dogs did indeed notice increased fear of unfamiliar people and dogs.
The researchers also found less efficient connections in anxious dogs between two brain regions important for learning and information processing. This may help explain why the owners of the fearful dogs in the study reported lower levels of trainability in their dogs.
A difficult time
Brains are extraordinarily complex biological computers, and our understanding of them is far from complete. This study should therefore be interpreted with caution.
The sample size was not large or varied enough to represent the entire dog population, and the way the dogs were raised, housed and cared for may have had an effect. In addition, they were not awake during the scans, and that may have influenced some of the results as well.
However, the study shows strong evidence for measurable differences in the way anxious dog brains are wired, compared to non-anxious dogs. This research can’t tell us whether changes in the brain caused the fear or vice versa, but fear in dogs is certainly real.
It’s in the best interest of our concerned best friends that we realize that they can be influenced by a brain that processes everything around them differently than “normal” dogs. This can make it difficult for them to learn to change their behavior, and they may be overly scared or easily aroused.
Fortunately, these symptoms can be controlled with medication. Research like this could lead to more sophisticated use of medication in anxious dogs so they can live happier, more adjusted lives.
If you have a dog that you believe is anxious, you should talk to a veterinarian who is specially trained in behavior.
Melissa Starling, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sydney
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.