Packer, R. M. A., Davies, A. M., Volk, H. A. 2019. What can we learn from the hair of the dog? Complex effects of endogenous and exogenous stressors on canine hair cortisol. PLoS ONE 14(5), e0216000.
Hair is an emerging biological matrix in which to measure chronic HPA axis activity, offering a longer term view into an animal’s life. We explored effects of exogenous (e.g. lifestyle, medications, social environment) and endogenous (e.g. disease, behaviour) stressors on hair cortisol concentration (HCC) in a population of Border Collies (BCs). Owners of BCs were recruited and reported their dog’s lifestyle, clinical history, anxiety-related behaviour, and collected a white hair sample from their dog’s dorsal neck region. HCC was determined using established methods with a commercial cortisol assay kit. Samples from 135 BCs were analysed, with 91 healthy controls and 44 diagnosed with epilepsy as a model disease. Factors associated with higher HCC included psychosocial stressors (living with three or more other dogs) and lifestyle (engaging in competitive flyball); while factors associated with lower HCC included anxiety (stranger-directed and non-social), health (epilepsy diagnosis, with number of seizures to date negatively correlated with HCC) and medication (certain anti-epileptic drugs were associated with elevated or reduced HCC). These novel results highlight the potential of chronic stress with frequent or persisting HPA-axis hyperactivity leading to a state of hypocortisolism, and the need to consider stressor recency and recurrence when interpreting HCC data.