There’s always been something mysterious about the process of “going gray.” Sometimes people end up with a head full of silver locks in their thirties, with the reasons ranging from stress to genetics. Gray hair is often associated with wisdom, and there are plenty of people in the entertainment industry who have made the best of premature graying—in fact, it’s kind of strange to picture many of them without it (Steve Martin and Anderson Cooper leap to mind).
Like humans, the color in a dog’s coat also changes over time. Typically, the older a dog gets, the more likely he is to show patches of gray, silver, or white in the face and over areas of the body. And, like humans, some dogs gain their salt and pepper color much earlier than expected.
So, if dogs go gray prematurely just as humans do, could some of the factors responsible for early color change in humans also contribute to graying in dogs? Well, according to the results of a new study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science, the answer is yes.
The study, titled “Anxiety and Impulsivity: Factors Associated with Premature Graying in Young Dogs,” examined 400 dogs ranging from one to four years of age, and it was designed to determine if stress played a role in their hair color transformations.
Dog owners were asked to complete a survey that would help researchers assess the amount of stress and anxiety their dogs demonstrated, but the owners were told that the purpose of the survey was to study the lifestyle of their dogs (to prevent bias in the questionnaire responses), and a number of red-herring questions were also included to hide the true purpose of the survey.
The results were then taken into account and compared with a picture of each dog to look for a link between stress behaviors and the early onset of graying in the muzzle. Ultimately, the data showed a correlation between symptoms of anxiety and premature graying.
Impulsivity behaviors—such as jumping, an inability to calm down, and post-exercise hyperactivity—were also linked to an increase in graying. Naturally, the older a dog was (in this study, the closer the dog was to the age of four), the more likely he or she was to possess gray fur. The study also showed that female dogs were much more likely to go gray prematurely compared to their male counterparts.
For owners of prematurely gray dogs, the main takeaway from this study should be to assess what the source of your dog’s early graying might be. Genetics can certainly play a role, but if your dog is showing signs of stress and anxiety like those noted in the study, her change in fur color may actually be a plea for help. Luckily, there are steps owners can take to relieve the stress in their dogs, including diet changes, setting up an isolated safety area in the home, and routine exercise.
Of course, de-stressed and formerly anxious dogs won’t be regaining the color in their fur anytime soon, but we all know those gray hairs just make them look more distinguished and adorable anyway.