Can Stress and Fear Affect the Lifespan of Dogs? What About Humans?


“An abnormal and persistent fear of men, sufferers experience anxiety even though they face no real threat.  It may be related to traumatic events in the sufferer’s past.  It may also be due to an anxiety disorder.”  Do dogs in your shelter experience this?

Many of you will probably say “yes”. However, this was a definition of a human androphobia- fear of men. Not only do dogs and people experience the same phobias, the results of being stressed may lead to the same negative outcomes for both animals and humans. In humans, chronic stress has been related to: obesity, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, immune disturbances, altered endocrine responses and nervous system disorders. In a recent study, accomplished by Nancy A. Dreschel from Pennsylvania State University, fear and anxiety in dogs were linked to decreased lifespan and some poor health conditions in dogs.

In her study, Dreschel sent an online survey to 721 owners of dogs who had passed away within 5 years. The survey consisted of 99 questions that inquired about the dogs’: demographics, training, behavior characteristics, health history, age at and cause of death. Then statistical analysis was performed to identify relationships between fear and anxiety and lifespan, specific diseases and causes of death.

The author found that behavior impacted the lifespan of dogs. Dogs that were described as “well-behaved” by their owners lived a significantly longer life.  Stranger-directed fear alone predicted a decrease in the lifespan of dogs.  Although stranger-directed fear was not related to any particular disease, the author assumed that stranger directed fear might have an effect on the dog’s body at a molecular level, accelerating the aging of cells. High scores on fear and anxiety predicted some diseases in dogs.  Non-social fear and separation anxiety in particular were linked to skin problems. Interestingly, the same link between psychological stress and some skin diseases has been shown in humans. Research showed that stress in humans disturbed the epidermal barrier; the same mechanism might increase vulnerability to fungal and bacterial infections as well as allergies in dogs.

Thus, if we are so similar in our reactions to stress maybe we can apply the same technique that works for us in order to improve stress in our shelter dogs. Think about the physical and social environment that may reduce human stress levels. How about calm space with relaxing music; or maybe, some mental enrichment such as puzzles or Sudoku; or maybe, some dinner with friends. Do you think these things help to improve human stress? Even if it does not treat the stress completely, at least, it will reduce some amount of it. Same for dogs: a clean, calm kennel; maybe some classical music; food puzzles; some time with the handler, who just sits by or massages the dog; or dog playgroups could bring some relief to stressed and fearful dogs, especially those in a shelter environment.

As for me, I got a craving for a relaxing cup of chamomile tea while writing this blog.

-Anastasia Shabelansky, Research Analyst, Center for Shelter Dogs


Dreschel, Nancy A. “The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 125.3 (2010): 157-162.