Despite the good care of staff and volunteers, dog shelters can be a turbulent experience for dogs, prompting researchers in the Netherlands to examine how well dogs may be adapting to their new environment based on their nocturnal activity.
A team from Utrecht University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine compared the nocturnal activity of 29 shelter dogs and 29 pet dogs in their own homes—similar in breed, age and sex—with the help of night cameras and a small activity tracker on their collar.
In a paper published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, they describe that shelter dogs rest much less at night than pet dogs, especially during the first two nights in the shelter. This restlessness did decrease over time, but even after 12 days in the shelter, the dogs still rested less at night than the pet dogs.
“We also saw this restlessness in hormone measurements in the urine of shelter dogs,” Janneke van der Laan said.
Shelter dogs had higher values of the stress hormone cortisol in their urine than pet dogs, especially during the first two days but also after 12 days. It was also striking that smaller shelter dogs, for instance Shih Tzus and Chihuahuas, were more restless during the first two nights than larger shelter dogs, and they also had higher cortisol values.
The researchers found big differences between individual dogs—some were already quite calm during the first night in the shelter, while others barely slept for a few nights.
“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 said.
“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.”