What is the effect of urban versus rural living on the mental health of dogs?
Since our dogs live with us, sharing our homes and activities, they are often are subjected to the same kinds of environmental influences that we experience. If there are aspects of our environment which can affect our mental health and well-being, then there is also the possibility that the same environmental influences can have an impact on our dogs. One of the most important features of our environment is where we live — such as in an urban or a rural setting.
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As of the time of this writing, over half of the world's population live in cities. This is expected to rise, with 68 percent of the human population predicted to live in urban areas by 2050. Unfortunately, cities are not the healthiest places to live; it has long been recognized that urban living is associated with higher rates of cardiovascular and respiratory disease due to factors such as air pollution. The detrimental effect of urban living has recently been shown to have an adverse effect on mental health as well.
In 2017, Oliver Gruebner of the Department of Epidemiology and Health Monitoring at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin led a team of investigators who surveyed all of the research that had been done on the impact of city living on our psychological status. Compared to rural residents, these researchers found that people residing in cities have a lot more problems. For example, the risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder, a state of mind characterized by feeling anxious, with a sense of impending danger or panic, is 21 percent higher in those living in the city. Urban dwellers are also 39 percent more likely to have mood disorders, and their rates of a number of other mental health conditions (including PTSD and anger management problems) are also higher.
There are many environmental factors which might contribute to the negative effect of city life on mental health. For example, traffic noise can interfere with sleep quality and cause cortisol, a stress hormone, to spike. There are other factors which can disrupt sleep patterns in city folk, with data showing that 6 percent of people living in brightly lit, urban areas slept less than six hours each night. Overall, 29 percent of urbanites were dissatisfied with the quality of their night-time rest, and there is ample data to show that inadequate sleep contributes to a variety of mental health problems. Epidemiological studies have also noted that the quality of the urban environment suffers because of reduced access to green spaces, and due to the fact that people living in crowded cities tend to isolate themselves socially. Thus individuals living in apartment complexes may not even know the names of the other people living on the same floor.
Is it the case that dogs also do not fare as well mentally when they live in the city rather than the countryside? A team of researchers headed by Jenni Puurunen at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki in Finland set out to explore that question. They utilized survey data pertaining to nearly 6000 dogs. They focused on the issue of fearfulness, one of the most common behavioral disorders in dogs.
Fear is a normal and important reaction that helps individuals survive in circumstances which may be threatening. However, when fearfulness is so excessive that it disrupts a dog's normal functioning, it then becomes a behavioral problem. Excessive fearfulness can significantly impair a dog's welfare and evidence from various studies shows that fearful dogs tend to have weaker and less satisfactory relationships with their owners. The type of fearfulness which this new research tried to explore is usually referred to as social anxiety or social fear, and it usually appears when the dogs encounter unfamiliar human beings or dogs.
Analysis of this new data set supported prior research findings, in that social fearfulness was demonstrated to be more common among neutered females, small dogs, and dogs that had had only limited socialization when they were puppies. Also, fearful dogs tended to be less active and their owners involved them in training and other activities significantly less often.
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The effect of the urban versus rural living environment turned out to be a very highly significant factor in the fearfulness and anxiety of the dogs. To measure this, the researchers first computed a variable which they called the "urban environment score." This involved noting the land use in the vicinity of the dog's home, including whether there were mainly artificial surfaces or agricultural areas, forests, and semi-natural areas nearby, etc. You can think of this variable as ranging from totally natural, undeveloped countryside to densely packed inner-city quarters.
The effects of environment turn out to be staggeringly high. If we look at fear of strangers (unfamiliar human beings) we find that the dogs living in the most urbanized situations tend to have fearfulness scores approximately 45 percent higher than dogs living in the most rural settings. If we consider fearfulness toward other dogs, those living in the most clearly urban settings have fearfulness scores approximately 70 percent higher than those living in the most rural and agricultural surroundings.
This particular study does not contain information that could precisely specify the differences between rural and urban living that are most important for mental health. However, it does make it quite clear that, in the same way that the stresses and environmental restrictions of city life tend to have a negative impact on the anxieties and moods of humans living in the densest urban settings, these environmental factors have a similar effect on the mental health of our dogs. Taken in general these data lead to the conclusion that city dogs tend to be more skittish and more fearful of strangers and other dogs than are their country cousins.
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