BACKGROUND: A new study by researchers at Penn State University has found that having a sympathetic owner did not lower the stress reaction of dogs that become anxious or fearful during noisy thunderstorms, but that living in a multi-dog household did lower the stress reaction. Storm-phobic animals can exhibit erratic behavior, destroying household items and furnishings, and causing their owners to experience lack of sleep and considerable mental stress.
ABOUT THE STUDY: Thunderstorm-anxious dogs not only suffer classic signs of fear -- including pacing, whining and hiding during a storm -- but also show a 207 percent spike in the production of cortisol, a hormone also produced by humans during stress. The researchers took saliva samples from the dogs used in the study before and after exposure to a recorded thunderstorm, and measured the cortisol levels in each sample. Dogs that lived in multi-dog households had significantly less overall change in cortisol levels compared to dogs that lived in single-dog households. This corresponds to a less extreme reaction to thunderstorms in dogs from the multi-dog households. However, that doesn't mean those with anxious pets should run out to the local animal shelter for additional dogs. The dogs in multi-dog households started out with slightly higher cortisol levels, indicating they were already under more stress from living with other dogs.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT: Certain events act as "stressors," triggering the nervous system to produce hormones to respond to the perceived danger. Specifically, the adrenal glands produce more adrenaline and cortisol, releasing them into the bloodstream. This speeds up heart and breathing rates, and increases blood pressure and metabolism. These and other physical changes help us to react quickly and effectively under pressure. This is known as the "stress response," or more commonly, as the "fight or flight response." But if even low levels of stress go on too long, it can be detrimental to one's health. The nervous system remains slightly activated and continues to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period, leaving the person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, and weakening the body's immune system.
STRESS-REDUCING TIPS: It might not be possible to de-sensitize dogs who are fearful of thunder, but there are some easy, practical things humans can do to reduce the amount of stress in their lives. (1) Be realistic and don't try to be perfect, or expect others to be so. (2) Don't over-schedule; cut out an activity or two when you start to feel overwhelmed. (3) Get a good night's sleep. (4) Get regular exercise to manage stress -- just not excessive or compulsive exercise -- and follow a healthy diet. (5) Learn to relax by building time into your schedule for reading or a nice long bath.