Brain scans show similar activity in anxious dogs and humans

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 18: MRI of a dog with a lumbal disc protrusion and a cauda equina sydrome on October 18, 2010 in Heidelberg, Germany. (Photo Agency-Animal-Picture/Getty Images)
MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 18: MRI of a dog with a lumbal disc protrusion and a cauda equina sydrome on October 18, 2010 in Heidelberg, Germany. (Photo Agency-Animal-Picture/Getty Images) /

Throughout the years, scientists have learned more about the human brain and stress. Human anxiety has been at the forefront of mental health research during stressful times, such as COVID-19, inflation and social and environmental issues. Yet, dogs also feel stress and anxiety, which could alter their behavior. As a dog parent, you are responsible for recognizing the signs of anxious dogs and making your furry family member feel as safe as possible.

One research team hopes to shed more light on mental health in canines by deploying a brain scan for dogs. The study compares anxious dogs’ brains to anxious humans, hopefully paving the way for new treatments and management for humans and their loyal companions.

Brain-Imaging Study Looks Closely at Anxious Dogs

A groundbreaking study from Ghent University, Belgium, suggests some dogs have different brain markers indicating anxiety. What was most remarkable were the similarities of those markers to what’s found in humans.

The researchers examined 38 dogs with and without anxiety by conducting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on their brains. Their owners then filled out questionnaires about how their dogs behaved under stress.

So, how does a dog brain compare to a human brain anyway? The researchers were able to correlate differences in brain markers to stress reactivity. For instance, the scans showed that dogs, like humans, had amygdalas — suggesting they dealt with extreme fear. The study also found inefficiencies in the hippocampus — pertaining to learning and information processing — which could explain the difficulty training anxious dogs and their attachment issues.

About 20% of American adults have a mental illness. However, the study ultimately shows that a large portion of the canine population might also battle poor mental health — and the same could be true for other animal species. Now it’s a question of what future treatments and coping strategies can help.

Signs to Look for in Anxious Dog

Pet owners know how comforting their furry companions are for mental health. Your brain releases dopamine and serotonin — the “happy hormones” — simply by sitting and petting your dog. Yet, your dog looks to you for comfort and love, too — especially when feeling uneasy.

Anxious dogs display a variety of behaviors based on their stress levels — just like humans. You can best support your pup with their anxiety by recognizing the signs, including the following:

  • Pacing in wide circles
  • Trembling
  • Vocalization — barking, whining, wailing and crying
  • Panting
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Yawning and drooling
  • Compulsive licking or chewing — this could be walls, objects, floors or themselves
  • Hiding
  • Displaying low mood or depression
  • Increased accidents and diarrhea
  • More shedding than normal

There may be several reasons your dog is anxious. They could perceive something or someone as threatening, have a noise phobia — such as fireworks or thunderstorms — or anticipate danger, especially when you’re not around. Nearly 14% of dogs have separation anxiety, causing them to display numerous abnormal behaviors.

How to Help an Anxious Dog

No pet owner wants to watch their dog suffer from anxiety. Fortunately, there are ways you can help them through a difficult time. The obvious choice is to ask your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medicine for dogs, which may offer relief. Of course, non-medicinal alternatives could include massage, music therapy, calming shirts or nature walks.


Every dog loves to go for a walk — as it turns out, there are several mood-boosting benefits outdoors that can ease their anxiety.

Dogs like smelling flowers — and some scents positively affect a dog’s mental state. For example, shelter dogs have responded well to vanilla and coconut, while many other dogs like the smell of roses and blueberry bushes. You can even spray floral scents on their bedding or blankets to soothe their worries.

Consider lavender essential oil, too. Lavender flowers are known for inducing sleep and relaxation for those struggling with anxiety.


If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to try massage therapy, you know how relaxing a session leaves you feeling. Anxiety causes tense muscles — but studies show that canine massage can help ease physical pain, while increased human contact benefits their well-being and recovery.

Starting at their neck, use long strokes down their body. You might even recognize where your dog holds stress in their body.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is also beneficial for humans and dogs with anxiety. Music has a calming effect and can block out scary or stress-inducing noises.

One study found that classical music positively affected shelter dogs and those in boarding kennels and veterinary clinics. The dogs spent more time lying down, sleeping, relaxing or sitting than displaying anxious behaviors.

Calming Shirts

Several products exist to help your dog fight off anxiety. You can purchase T-shirts and coats that apply pressure around your dog’s torso to ward off jitters — these tend o help during a thunderstorm.

Stuffing their dog bed cover with your clothes can also deliver relief if they have separation anxiety. Although you may need to go out, your dog will still have your scent to relax them.

Give Your Anxious Furry Friends Some Extra Love

Anxious pet owners can empathize with their beloved anxious dogs. Sometimes the best medicine for them to deal with their anxiety is to receive extra love from you. Speak to your vet about various anxiety treatments for your dog and try different management strategies to help them cope.

Next. How dogs can make a difference when it comes to mental health. dark