Fretting Fido: Anxious dogs' brains are wired differently
From their companionship to their ability to make us fitter and healthier, it became dazzlingly clear during the pandemic how much we value our pooches. Nearly one in five US households adopted a pet during this time, and the majority were of the barking variety, meaning you’ll now find everyone’s best friend in a massive 69 million homes across the country.
However, many owners also face a daily battle with animals suffering mental illnesses that are difficult to treat. Anxiety-related symptoms have been reported in more than 70% of dogs, according to a 2020 Finnish study. It’s also one of the main reasons animals end up in or returned to shelters.
To understand more about the neurological aspect of problem pooch behaviors, researchers from Ghent University in Belgium set out to see if brain maps varied between dogs with disorders.
“The prevalence of anxiety disorders among dogs is high and the most encountered behavioral disorder in daily practice,” noted the researchers. “Moreover, they form a serious welfare problem not only for the well-being of the individual, but they also compromise the relationship with the owner leading to abandonment, rehoming, or even euthanasia.”
To map out the animals’ brains, the research team recruited 25 "healthy" beagles from a university medical department, and 13 "anxious" dogs (six from a shelter, seven raised in homes) that expressed a variety of anxiety-like behaviors across eight months to two years. Through anesthetic and non-invasive functional MRI (fMRI), a picture was painted of just how different the neural pathways in anxious dogs were.
“A particular highlight of our results is the connection between the hippocampus and mesencephalon,” the researchers said. “Here, a less efficient communication was found between hippocampus and mesencephalon in the anxiety group.”
The hippocampus plays a vital role in memory and learning abilities, and is also central to human anxiety disorders.
“Dysfunctions of these regions can lead to anxiety symptoms like more fear, less excitability, less trainability and so on, which are in line with previous human research,” the researchers noted.
The multi-faceted approach saw the researchers gather information from the owners of the anxious animals, and by joining the dots with the brain scans, the scientists found that dogs that exhibited fear and anxiety towards strangers, and otherwise showed excitability, were more likely to have brains showing abnormal network metrics in the amygdala.
There were limitations to the study: its small sample size, the healthy dogs studied in the laboratory, the environment they were born and raised in, and the anxious animals with shelter histories and unknown previous treatment that could have informed their condition. However, the distinct neural network differences between the two groups is a promising sign for more research into targeted therapy.
Current treatment is largely behavioral and therapeutic, including SSRIs or antidepressants like fluoxetine and clomipramine, and benzodiazepine for managing short-term symptoms, and even CBD oil. I addition to this, there’s a huge market for calming gadgets to ease problem behaviors, including noise-canceling kennels and devices to read your dog’s mood via their tail wags.
The researchers believe that the more we know about neural pathways present in anxious animals, the better their disorders can be treated and managed.
“Our findings could provide more insight into the topological organization of the functional brain connectome in anxiety disorder, thus lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms and illness course of anxiety in both animals and humans and help the development of more personalized and effective therapies.”
All dogs that took part in the research were unharmed in the study.
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.