The surprising link between your dog's joints and anxiety

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

hypermobility in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Both humans and dogs can develop a condition called hypermobility, which is characterized by joint laxity — in humans it’s often called double-jointedness; in dogs, it’s a risk factor for hip dysplasia
  • Joint hypermobility in humans is associated with psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety, and newly published research suggests dogs with the condition also tend toward higher levels of emotional arousal than other dogs
  • The researchers discovered that female dogs and golden retrievers (in a population of over 5,500 goldens, Labs and German Shepherds) have higher hypermobility scores along with higher excitability scores

Some people have a condition called hypermobility in which tissues holding a joint together, mainly ligaments and the joint capsule, are too loose. Weak muscles around the joint can also contribute to joint laxity. Joint hypermobility is often referred to as double-jointedness.

People with hypermobility can move certain joints — typically in the knees, shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers — easily and painlessly beyond the normal range of motion. They can, for example, touch their thumb to their inner forearm or place their hands flat on the floor without bending their knees.

The condition tends to be inherited, and the genes responsible for the production of collagen — an important protein that helps to bond tissues together — probably play a role.1

Hypermobility can cause pain in the affected joints, but often it causes no physical symptoms and requires no medical intervention. It’s especially common in children but often improves as they get older. Interestingly, several published studies dating back to the late 1980s have reported an association between joint hypermobility in humans and psychiatric symptoms and disorders, specifically anxiety.2

Like humans, some dogs also inherit or develop joint hypermobility

Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Barcelona decided to see if a nonhuman species with joint hypermobility is also prone to anxiety.3 They chose dogs as their study subjects, since joint hypermobility also occurs in canines and is, in fact, a risk factor for hip dysplasia, one of the most prevalent orthopedic diseases in dogs worldwide.

The likelihood a dog will develop hip dysplasia is often evaluated using the PennHIP method in which x-rays of the hip joint are taken under extension while the animal is anesthetized. The PennHIP is primarily a measure of hip joint hypermobility.

The Canine Behavioral Assessment Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) is a widely used tool to assess 13 behavioral characteristics in dogs, including stranger-directed aggression, owner-directed aggression, dog-directed aggression/fear, familiar dog directed aggression, trainability, chasing, stranger-directed fear, nonsocial fear, separation-related problems, touch sensitivity, excitability, attachment/attention seeking and energy.

The Barcelona researchers worked with The Seeing Eye — a charitable organization with a large database of guide dogs that are routinely assessed for both hip joint hypermobility and behavior traits using the PennHip and C-BARQ — to pull together the records of 5,575 dogs they could evaluate for both conditions in a non-invasive manner.

It’s important to note that the dogs involved in the study were bred, raised and trained to be working dogs, so they would have a lower general prevalence of problem behavior compared to the larger population of dogs. The breeds included golden and Labrador retrievers, German Shepherds, and Lab/German Shepherd crosses.

Do dogs with joint hypermobility suffer more anxiety than dogs with normal hips?

The researchers found that female dogs were 3.66 times more likely to have high joint hypermobility scores than males, which is consistent with findings in humans. Golden retrievers were 8.58 times more likely to have high hypermobility scores; Labs and German Shepherds were about five times more likely to have lower scores.

The dogs with high joint hypermobility scores also had higher scores for excitability and aggression toward familiar dogs. As the researchers explain it in their published report, excitability is a fundamental characteristic of emotional responses and is used as “an indication of the ease with which an individual enters a state of high emotional arousal in response to an external stimulus or event.”

The C-BARQ defines a highly excitable dog as one that shows significant behavioral arousal, including “barking or yelping at the slightest disturbance, rushing toward and around any source of excitement, and having difficulty calming down.” In humans, increased arousal — even in the presence of neutral stimuli — is linked with anxiety symptoms, and in both humans and dogs, high levels of arousal “seem to impair top-down cognitive inhibition,” which has been linked to anxiety.

Aggression toward familiar dogs is defined by the researchers as “a situation of species-specific social conflict between two or more dogs living in the same household,” and as such, wouldn’t be strongly influenced by the specialized rearing and training that assistance dogs receive.

“Interestingly,” the researchers write in their study, “canine intra-group conflict usually includes a dimension of ambivalence and anxiety, which would help to explain the association we found between this form of aggression and joint hypermobility.”

Translation: There’s an element of anxiety involved when dog housemates have conflicts, so this might explain why the dogs in the study with higher joint hypermobility (and therefore higher anxiety scores) also exhibit more aggression toward familiar dogs. The research team concluded that, “Our results suggest a positive association between hip joint hypermobility and emotional arousal in domestic dogs, which parallel results found in people.”

“Many years ago our research group discovered a relation between hypermobility and anxiety, in which people with more joint mobility and flexibility also tended to have more problems with anxiety. Now for the first time we are able to demonstrate that this association also exists in a non-human species”, lead study author professor Jaume Fatjó announced in a press release.4

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Tips and tricks to calm an anxious dog

Countless dogs suffer with anxiety in today’s world — far more than the population of dogs with hip dysplasia. Thankfully, there are many things you can do to help soothe your canine companion’s nervousness.

1. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, playtime, mental stimulation, attention and affection. Daily rigorous exercise is one of the most overlooked, free and effective treatments for reducing stress, and very few pet parents take advantage of it. This “treatment” should not be optional: it’s the very best way to improve behavior over time, for free!

2. Consider adding a probiotic supplement or fermented veggies to your dog’s fresh, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate whole food diet, as studies show probiotics reduce stress-related GI disturbances in dogs. Animals with healthy microbiomes are happier.

3. Add a flower essence blend like Solutions Separation Anxiety to her drinking water and invest in an Adaptil pheromone collar or diffuser.

4. When your dog will be home alone, leave him with an article of clothing or blanket with your scent on it and a treat-release toy, place small treats and his favorite toys around the house for him to discover, and put on some soothing doggy music before you leave.

5. Also play calm, soothing music before a possible stressor occurs. This may relax your dog and have the added bonus of drowning out distressing noises.

6. If your dog responds well to pressure applied to her body, invest in a wrap like the Thundershirt; also consider Ttouch, a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets.

7. Consult a holistic or integrative veterinarian about homeopathic and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) remedies, Rescue Remedy or other specific Bach flower remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your dog's intermittent stress. Products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include homeopathic aconitum (or whatever remedy fits the symptoms best), Hyland's Calms Forte or calming milk proteins (variety of brands).

Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that can be of benefit include holy basil, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP, CBD and chamomile.

The essential oil of lavender has been proven to reduce the stress response in dogs. Place a few drops on your pet's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs or diffuse the oil around your house. There are also great oil blends specifically for calming animals.

8. If you've adopted a dog who may have had a rocky start in life, I highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which is designed to help rescue dogs and their adopters learn to communicate effectively and form an unbreakable bond.

9. If your dog's anxiety seems to be getting worse instead of better, consider an individualized approach to managing her stress by allowing her to choose what best soothes her via applied zoopharmacognosy (self-healing techniques offered through a trained professional).

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