Alumna: Stress Makes Dogs Go Gray, Too

old-dogIt’s no secret that stressful life events can cause premature graying of scalp hair in humans — as even a cursory examination of “before-term” and “after-term” photos of past U.S. presidents will attest. A new study, authored by NIU alumnus Camille King, Ed.D. ’11, and NIU professor Tom Smith and appearing in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, has found that young dogs too are susceptible to stress-induced graying.

King and Smith, together with animal behaviorist Peter Borchelt and renowned author/researcher Temple Grandin, visited dog parks, dog shows, veterinary clinics and other venues across the front range of Colorado to examine 400 dogs and administer dog behavior questionnaires to their owners. Independent raters rated the extent of muzzle grayness based on photos of the dogs taken on-site. Dogs between 1 and 4 years of age whose owners reported their dog showed signs of anxiety showed a greater extent of premature muzzle graying than their less anxious peers. Increased muzzle grayness was also related to owner-reported symptoms of impulsivity.

Female dogs showed higher levels of grayness than male dogs, but dog size, spay/neuter status and presence of medical problems did not significantly predict the extent of muzzle grayness.

“Based on my years of experience observing and working with dogs, I’ve long had a suspicion that dogs with higher levels of anxiety and impulsiveness also show increased muzzle grayness,” said King, who earned her doctorate in NIU’s adult and higher education program in 2011 and now has her own animal behavior practice in the Denver area.

dog-916099_640Smith, who provided methodological and statistical expertise, said he was skeptical of the hypothesis at first.

“However, when we analyzed the data, the results actually were quite striking,” he said.

“This is an original, unique study that has implications for dog welfare,” added Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

This is the second article examining dog anxiety that King, Smith and Grandin have published. In 2014, the team, together with animal behaviorist and dog trainer Laurie Buffington, published research in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior examining the effect of pressure wraps, such as Thundershirts on heart rate levels and symptoms of anxiety in dogs. This study found that the use of such pressure wraps can markedly decrease heart rate in anxious dogs and also affect other behavioral measures of stress.


King is an alumna of the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education. Click here to support the department’s future alumni.