What Not to do When Your Dog is Unwell

Pet insurance companies are not noted for publishing interesting articles on the web, but Direct Line Insurance has done just that.

The insurance company has shared the results of a questionnaire survey carried out on their clients (Direct Line, 2017).

The survey seems to have concentrated on dogs, and the bottom line of the report is that 42% of dog owners believe that their dogs are suffering from a human-like mental or physical illness.

A breakdown of the figures for the reported mental illnesses is shown in the table below.
Separation anxiety 26
Stress 25
Depression 10
Hyperactivity 10
Eating disorder 8
Grief 6
Sleep deprivation 5
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) 4
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 3
On the face of it, there is nothing new or surprising here. We have discussed many of these conditions in pets in our blogs, for example separation anxiety and grief HERE, and stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder HERE.
What is interesting about this report is why some of these dog owners thought their dogs had got these conditions. They blamed themselves. The writers of the report attribute this to the dogs being able to pick up their owners emotions, which of course is a highly plausible explanation. After all, we humans are very good at reading the emotions of our family, friends and work colleagues. This is in fact an essential skill for a complicated social mammal like us. We call it empathy.
This reminds me of another paper published recently in the journal, National Institute for Health Research (Tyrer et al., 2017). What caught my eye was a term I had not heard for a while – cyberchondria. The paper is an 88-page report of a large study looking at the effects of internet-based self-diagnosis on the health of people in the UK. Cyberchondria is the common name for a new type of anxiety disorder – health anxiety – that has emerged over the last decade or so as a result of the digital age.
Cyberchondria, or health anxiety, might be affecting 1 in 5 of all NHS out-patients. How it works is this. Some people worry excessively that they have something wrong with them. They may think this because they feel tired in the morning, or feel that their pulse rate is too high, or have frequent headaches, for example. They look up their symptoms on an internet search engine. This behaviour has become so widespread that this behaviour has been nicknamed diagnosis by Dr Google (other internet search engines are available).
Internet search engines typically yield thousands of pages of results for a search. The problem here is that humans have a normal and natural bias that favours and puts more value on information presented to them that supports their current beliefs – this is called confirmation bias, and it has enormous influence on the way we make every-day decisions without us even being aware of it.
When many of these people then go to see their doctors, some even take pages and pages of information printed off the internet with them. Doctors are well-trained and experienced professionals that methodically work through a well-tried and tested system as they carry out their examination of a patient. When they can find nothing wrong with some of these individuals, it becomes extremely difficult to convince them that they have nothing to worry out, even after the results of further diagnostic tests from blood samples etc come back negative. Such is the power of the patient’s confirmation bias. Some patients insist on being referred on to specialists for further examination and tests.
The problem for our already over-stretched health system is that this apparent epidemic in health anxiety is costing the NHS an extra £420 million per year.
The problem for dogs, highlighted in the Direct Line insurance report, is that they can ‘catch’ their owners cyberchondria-related negative feelings like catching the flu. Many studies have shown just how good dogs are at reading our emotions from our facial expressions, for example see Barber et al., 2016; Guo et al., 2009. Dogs know when we are happy, sad, angry and so on and when they read our emotions from our faces, they begin to feel the same themselves.
It’s easy to see just how dogs ‘catch’ our anxieties through a process called emotional contagion, sometimes becoming ill themselves.
Emotional contagion is the simplest form of empathy and it is found across the animal kingdom. The best examples are commonly seen by all of us while watching the behaviour of social animals such as birds, sheep, cattle, dogs etc.
Watch what happens to a flock of birdsfeeding together on a beach when your dog spots them and gives chase. Only 1 or 2 birds initially see the dog coming and take flight. The rest of the flock quickly follow.
This behaviour is like a reflex because it is triggered spontaneously as the fear/avoidance reaction of the first birds that actually see the dog spread rapidly through the rest of the flock. The remaining birds do not need to actually see the approaching dog for themselves to react.
The term ’emotional contagion’ explains what this kind of empathy does perfectly –
The emotional state of one social individual spreads through the others like a flu virus.
Another common example is seen on hospital neonatal wards. When 1 baby in a ward of new-borns starts to cry, all the others quickly follow suite – the baby-collective share the distress of the first.


Health anxiety is NOT just a human disease, it affects our pets too.

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Who sneezed first and spread the cyberchondria disease?

You, or your dog?

© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2017
This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this article in whole or in part onto another web page or document without permission of the author. Email enquiries to robertft@emotions-r-us.com.
Images used in this article
  1. Unwell Springer Spaniel at the vets. Copyright © Dr Vicky Payne, MRCVS, 4 seasons Holistic Veterinary Care, 2015.
  2. Claire Martin and Darwin enjoying an empathic moment. Copyright © Claire Martin, Chrysalis K9, 2017.
  3. Jan Baker, Springer Rescue for Scotland dog Harley chases seagulls. Copyright © Jan Baker, 2017.

Barber, A.L., Randi, D., Müller, C.A. and Huber, L., 2016. The processing of human emotional faces by pet and lab dogs: Evidence for lateralization and experience effects. PloS one, 11(4), p.e0152393.

Direct Line. 2017. Pets suffering with mental health issues. Direct Line Insurance Group https://www.directlinegroup.com/media/news/brand/2017/20171004.aspx (Accessed 26th October, 2017).

Guo, K., Meints, K., Hall, C., Hall, S. and Mills, D., 2009. Left gaze bias in humans, rhesus monkeys and domestic dogs. Animal cognition, 12(3), pp.409-418.

Tyrer, P., Salkovskis, P., Tyrer, H., Wang, D., Crawford, M.J., Dupont, S., Cooper, S., Green, J., Murphy, D., Smith, G. and Bhogal, S., 2017. Cognitive–behaviour therapy for health anxiety in medical patients (CHAMP): a randomised controlled trial with outcomes to 5 years. Health Technology Assessment, 21(50), pp.1-58.