Dogs experience more stress for days (even weeks) after being sent to a shelter

UTRECHT, Netherlands — Millions of dogs enter animal shelters every single year. Unfortunately, experts believe that number will rise soon as people go back to work — with no one to take care of the dogs they adopted during the coronavirus pandemic. While having to give up a pet for any reason is stressful for humans, a new study finds these jarring changes are just as traumatic for the dogs themselves.

Researchers from Utrecht University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine find it can take days and sometimes weeks for dogs to adapt to entering a shelter. Moreover, shelter dogs experience significantly more stress than pet dogs, especially during their first two nights in a new environment.

Researcher Janneke van der Laan and her team compared the sleep quality and nighttime activity of 29 shelter dogs and 29 pet dogs in the own homes during this study. Study authors used night cameras and activity trackers on each dog’s collar to follow their movements.

Results show shelter dogs are significantly more restless at night in comparison to the average family dog. Although this trouble sleeping tends to decrease over time, shelter dogs still show more restlessness than pet dogs — even 12 days after entering a shelter.

“We also saw this restlessness in hormone measurements in the urine of shelter dogs” says Janneke van der Laan in a university release.

Smaller dogs in shelters more likely to suffer from stress

A shelter dog in the Netherlands tries to sleep in their new environment. (Photo: Janneke van der Laan)

Study authors discovered higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the urine of shelter dogs compared to family pets. These levels were noticeably higher within those first two days after entering a shelter.

Interestingly, the team found that smaller shelter dogs, such as Shih Tzus and Chihuahuas, suffer from more stress than their larger shelter-mates. Researchers also note every dogs has their own individual reactions to living in a new environment. While some could barely sleep for days after entering a shelter, others calmed down much faster.

“It seems that dogs need at least two days, but often longer to get used to their new environment, in this case the shelter,” Van der Laan explains. “Humans usually also sleep less good during the first night in a new environment, for example at the beginning of a vacation.”

“With our follow-up research we will zoom in even further on the welfare of dogs in shelters. But our current findings already show that it is important to pay close attention to dogs that are unable to rest properly after several nights. The shelter staff may already be able to help these dogs by for example moving them to a less busy spot in the shelter.”

The study appears in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.