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Pairing up shelter dogs could be the key to reducing their stress

We all love a good underdog story, and it turns out that the key to helping shelter dogs find their forever homes might be simpler than we thought. Interestingly, a recent Virginia Tech study suggests that the solution to their stress might lie in a surprisingly simple intervention: companionship.

Research indicates that pairing shelter dogs with compatible companions significantly reduces their stress levels and expedites their adoption process, demonstrating the profound impact of social connection on their well-being and prospects.

Lonely life and stress of a shelter dog

Transitioning from a familiar home environment to the unfamiliar, often chaotic atmosphere of an animal shelter can be a jarring experience for a dog.

The sudden loss of routine, coupled with the constant noise, unfamiliar smells, and lack of personal space, can lead to significant stress and anxiety in these animals.

This heightened stress can manifest in various ways, from behavioral issues to physical ailments, making it harder for them to adjust and ultimately find a new home.

“Despite being a social species, dogs are often housed alone in shelters to reduce disease transmission and possible injury from inter-dog conflict. But this social isolation can work against dogs’ behavioral health and adoptability,” said Erica Feuerbacher, the lead researcher behind this remarkable study.

Each year, nearly 4 million dogs find themselves in shelters across the United States, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. These dogs often face chronic stress due to factors like noise, confined spaces, and limited social interaction.

Two dogs are better than one

But what if the solution to easing this stress and improving their chances of adoption was as simple as giving them a friend? Feuerbacher’s team set out to test this idea at the Humane Society of Western Montana.

Half of the 61 dogs in the study were paired with carefully matched companions, while the other half stayed in their kennels alone. Researchers closely observed both groups, recording stress behaviors (like lip-licking, whining, and pinned-back ears) and measuring stress hormones in their urine.

The results were striking. The dogs who had a roommate showed fewer signs of stress and, perhaps most importantly, were adopted an average of four days faster than their solo counterparts.

Win-win for dogs and shelters

“Dogs housed together not only showed fewer stress behaviors, but they also were adopted, on average, four days sooner than single-housed dogs,” noted Feuerbacher.

Implementing cohousing programs could revolutionize shelter operations, addressing issues like overcrowding and resource constraints. By reducing stress and improving well-being, this approach not only benefits the dogs but also streamlines the adoption process.

When potential adopters witness positive interactions between canine companions, they gain valuable insights into the dog’s temperament and social skills, leading to more informed and successful adoptions.

This approach could create a virtuous cycle, where improved animal welfare leads to increased adoption rates, further alleviating the burden on shelters and ultimately improving the lives of countless dogs.

Future directions

While this study focused on short-term shelter stays, Feuerbacher and her team hope to explore the benefits of pairing in longer-term scenarios as well. They also want to delve deeper into the types of interactions that lead to successful pairings.

“Clearly exhibiting that a dog can successfully interact with other dogs might highlight those dogs as good matches – leading to more successful adoptions,” said Feuerbacher.

The next time you visit a shelter, don’t be surprised to see a few dogs sharing a kennel. It’s not just about saving space – it could be the key to finding these furry friends their forever families.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.


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