Barking Up the Right Tree: Anxious Dogs Have Brains Like Ours.

Joanne Baker | Tuesday, June 6th, 2023

Having a dog is paws-itively wonderful, but some dog parents face the challenge of caring for pups with mental struggles. A recent study published in PLOS ONE has sniffed out some fascinating findings about anxious dogs’ brains. It turns out that these furry friends have measurable differences in their noggins that are remarkably similar to humans with anxiety disorders. This discovery not only helps us understand anxiety in dogs better but also holds promise for improving treatments for both humans and our four-legged pals.

Anxiety disorders in humans come in different forms and involve being extra scared, sensitive, and expecting bad things to happen. They can be tricky to treat because they’re so diverse. By studying anxiety in animals, researchers hope to learn more about what’s going on inside and come up with better ways to help both animals and humans. This particular study aimed to dig into the brain pathways connected to anxiety in dogs and see if there were any similarities to human anxiety.

The clever team of researchers from Ghent University in Belgium recruited dogs with and without anxiety for special brain scans called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Other studies have used fMRIs with awake dogs, but this one needed pups that tend to stress out, so they were given a special sleep during the scans. The doggy moms and dads also filled out surveys about their furry friends’ behaviors to give the researchers more insights. The scientists analyzed the brain data, focusing on special areas known as the “anxiety circuit,” based on previous studies in animals and humans.

The results revealed some big differences between the brains of anxious and non-anxious dogs. The most woof-tastic disparities were found in the communication pathways and connection strength within the anxiety circuit. These differences were closely tied to specific behaviors reported by the doggy parents. For example, anxious dogs had supercharged amygdalas, which are brain parts that process fear. This matches what previous studies found in humans and explains why anxious dogs may be more scared of unfamiliar people and other dogs. The researchers also noticed less efficient connections between two brain regions that are important for learning and processing information in anxious dogs. This could explain why doggy parents reported that their anxious pups weren’t as easy to train.

But we have to tread carefully when interpreting these findings, just like a dog stepping on a delicate flower. The brain is super complicated, and this study had some limits. The group of dogs they studied was small, so it might not represent all dogs out there. Things like how the dogs were raised and taken care of could have influenced the results too. Also, the dogs were asleep during the scans, which could have affected what the researchers saw. Still, the study gives us strong evidence that anxious dogs have brains that are wired differently compared to calm dogs.

We can’t say for certain if the brain differences cause anxiety or if it’s the other way around, but what we do know is that anxiety exists in dogs. Understanding that anxious dogs have brains that work differently is key to understanding their behavior. Anxious dogs may find it harder to change their ways, often showing excessive fear or getting worked up easily. The good news is that these symptoms can be helped with the right medications. Studies like this one help us come up with better meds for anxious dogs, so they can wag their tails and live happier lives.

If you think your furry friend might be anxious, it’s a great idea to talk to a veterinarian who knows a lot about behavior. They can give you the best advice and make sure your anxious buddy gets the care and support they need to thrive. So, reach out to the doggy doctor and make sure your pup’s tail is wagging with joy!