Anxious Dogs Found to Have Different Brains in Neuroimaging Study

Owning a dog involves enjoying their company, playing with them, and receiving unconditional love. However, some dog owners are also dealing with the challenge of caring for dogs that are suffering from mental health issues.

A recent research study published in PLOS ONE analyzed brain scans of dogs with and without anxiety and linked them to behavior. The research team from Ghent University in Belgium discovered that dogs with anxiety have distinct differences in their brains that are related to their anxiety, and these differences are similar to those found in humans who have anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are a diverse range of conditions that can be classified into several main types. They typically involve heightened levels of fear, emotional reactivity, and negative anticipations. These disorders can be challenging to manage and treat, partly due to the complexity and diversity of anxiety.

Studying anxiety in animals can provide insights into its underlying causes and potential treatments for both animals and humans. The recent research aimed to explore the neural pathways that may be linked to anxiety in dogs, which could enhance the management of anxiety in veterinary medicine and uncover resemblances to human anxiety disorders.

To conduct the study, dogs were chosen both with and without anxiety, and they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains. While dogs have been previously involved in fMRI studies, for this particular study, dogs that might become easily stressed out were put under general anesthesia to minimize discomfort.

The researchers in the study recruited dogs with and without anxiety and asked their owners to fill out surveys on their pets’ behavior. The dogs underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while under general anesthesia. The research team analyzed the collected data and focused on specific brain regions that are typically associated with anxiety in animals and humans, which they referred to as the “anxiety circuit.”

The researchers examined if there were any variations in brain activity between anxious and non-anxious dogs and whether these differences were associated with anxiety-related behaviors.

According to the study published in PLOS ONE, the researchers discovered notable differences between anxious and non-anxious dogs. Specifically, there were differences in how the “anxiety circuit” in the brain functioned, including the strength of connections between different regions. These differences were also found to be linked with certain behaviors that were reported in the surveys conducted by the owners.

Another finding is that anxious dogs had highly efficient amygdalas, which is the brain region responsible for processing fear. This suggests that these dogs have had a lot of experience with fear, similar to findings in human studies. Furthermore, owners of anxious dogs reported that their pets were more fearful of unfamiliar people and dogs.

Furthermore, anxious dogs had less efficient connections between two important regions of the brain involved in learning and information processing. This could potentially explain why the owners of anxious dogs rated their trainability lower in the surveys.

Brains are exquisitely complex biological computers, and our understanding of them is far from comprehensive. As such, this study should be interpreted cautiously.

The sample size was not large or varied enough to represent the entire dog population, and the way the dogs were raised, housed, and cared for could have had an effect. Furthermore, they were not awake during the scans, and that also may have influenced some of the results.

However, the study does show strong evidence for measurable differences in the way anxious dog brains are wired, compared to non-anxious dogs. This research can’t tell us whether changes in the brain caused the anxiety or the other way around, but anxiety in dogs is certainly real.

It’s in the interests of our anxious best friends that we appreciate that they may be affected by a brain that processes everything around them differently to “normal” dogs. This may make it difficult for them to learn to change their behavior, and they may be excessively fearful or easily aroused.

Thankfully, these symptoms can be treated with medication. Research like this could lead to more finessed use of medication in anxious dogs, so they can live happier and better adjusted lives.

If you have a dog you think might be anxious, you should speak to a veterinarian with special training in behavior.

Read More: PsyPost

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