Anxious dogs may suffer premature graying, much like American Presidents and stressed-out fathers of teenage daughters. Okay, maybe I made that last example up, but there’s no denying my beard is more salt than pepper these days.

New canine research from the Northern Illinois University Huskies revealed that dogs described as “anxious and impulsive” tended to gray earlier than their cooler, calmer canine counterparts. Who said all the important scientific breakthroughs had been made? Let’s look closer at this color-less condition (get it?).

Human cues

This study may trace its origins to President Obama’s famously fading mane. Photographs began circulating around 2013 demonstrating the shocking transition from youthful dark locks to a (much) more mature gray coiffure. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush also suffered similar hair transformations. The press began to ask if genetics or stress was to blame. Leave it to a group of Huskies to ask the same question about our canine companions.

As a practicing veterinarian for over 25 years, the whole gray-muzzles-in-young-nervous-dogs thing had been around for a while. For years, I had jokingly described young dogs with salty muzzles as “worried gray.” I had always assumed it was related to excess levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, brought on by chronic nervousness. The scientists at Northern Illinois University wanted to see if these gray hair hunches were right.

Shades of gray

The scientists conducted their study in beautiful, dog-friendly Colorado. They asked 400 dog owners to evaluate their pooches’ behavior, age and health. The researchers also took two “mug shots” of each canine participant. They analyzed the data on dark-colored dogs between 1 and 4 years old.

They clued in on behaviors such as destroying objects when left alone, cowering or fearful behavior when placed in strange environments or meeting new people or animals and if they had a history of hair loss when stressed or nervous. They assessed “impulsivity,” or whether the dogs jumped on people, how quickly and easily they could be calmed after excitement and if they appeared hyperactive and distracted, especially after play periods.

To judge the grayness, two independent raters (who had never contacted any of the dogs) graded the photos on a scale of 0 to 3 – 0 was no gray and 3 indicated a fully gray muzzle.

No ifs about it

The results of this small study indicated that a gray muzzle in dogs aged 2 to 4 was associated with owner-described anxiety and impulsivity. Dogs who were reported to experience fear of loud noises and unfamiliar people and animals were significantly associated with muzzle grayness. Perhaps most interestingly (and a bit puzzling) was that females were found to prematurely gray more than males. The scientists had no explanation for this unexpected finding.

Similar premature graying findings have been observed in laboratory rats. Rats genetically altered to be hyper-emotional experience premature aging, weakened immune systems and early graying. Human studies evaluating patients suffering from chronic pain have found similar results. Smoking and obesity have also been shown to increase premature graying in people.

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Take notice

The study authors recommend if pet parents or veterinary healthcare providers observe a dog aged 1 to 4 with a gray muzzle, pursue behavioral assessments. In certain cases, these behaviors may be subclinical or unnoticed, with premature graying being the only outward sign of a serious inward issue. Honestly, I’d hope someone would’ve noticed anxiety was a problem long before the gray appears.

Whatever the case, I expect this research will make pet parents and veterinarians more vigilant for subtle graying in young pups.

As for me, I blame it on my teenagers.

Jan 16, 2017
Pet Health

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