Premature Graying in Dogs
Study shows links with anxiety, impulsiveness, and fear.
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We know that premature gray hair in people is a result of a variety of influences. Many parents swear that their kids are making them go gray. Before and after pictures of U.S. Presidents show an astounding increase in gray hair in eight — or even four — years. Of course, genetics is also known to play a role, as is disease. A study on premature graying in dogs suggests that it may be correlated with a number of factors, including some with emotional associations.
The study was of 400 dogs in the age range of 1-4 years who were recruited with flyers at veterinary clinics, dog shows, and dog parks. Each dog was photographed from the front and from the side so that the degree of graying on their muzzle could be assessed. They were scored 0 = no gray, 1 = frontal gray, 2 = half gray and 3 = full gray. Additionally, their people filled out a 42-question survey. Data on anxious behaviors, impulsive behaviors, fears, size, age, sex, number of dogs and cats in the household, time spent unsupervised outdoors, whether they were spayed or neutered, medical issues, and participation in organized sports or activities were collected.
Researchers found an association between graying on the muzzle and anxious behaviors, impulse behaviors, fear of loud noises, unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar dogs. The extent of grayness was positively correlated with age, and female dogs were more gray than male dogs. There was no link found for premature grayness with size, being spayed or neutered, medical problems (which were rare in the sample), reactions to thunderstorms, fear of unfamiliar places, number of dogs or cats in the household, time spent outside unsupervised or being involved in organized activities.
Dogs were only included in the study if it was possible to determine how gray their muzzles were. (White dogs and those with merle coloring didn’t make the cut, causing 43 dogs to be excluded from the study.) The people who evaluated the photographs were not the same people who had any knowledge of the questionnaires, which prevents accidental bias in the assessment of the degree of graying. The survey was designed so that pet parents were unaware of the purpose of the study. (They were simply told it was a study involving dog lifestyle.) In addition to questions that assessed the factors of interest in the study, there were so-called distractor questions to prevent people from biasing their answers based on what they thought researchers were investigating. Distractor questions included “Does your dog have hind limb dew claws?”
This research adds to our understanding of premature graying in dogs, and what’s most exciting about that is the possibilities it opens for helping dogs. Being anxious or fearful and struggling with impulse control are hard on dogs, and any help dogs receive for these issues can be beneficial. If premature graying provides a tip-off to professionals that these issues may be present, intervention may be more likely to happen and to happen faster. If behaviorists, veterinarians, trainers, and other dog professionals know that a gray muzzle in a young dog may indicate that the dog suffers from these issues, perhaps they will more thoroughly assess them or refer them to other people for evaluation. It’s just another way that people can potentially make life better and easier for many dogs.
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.