What do pets mean to humans?
Every now and then, I hear a story of profound sadness in someone’s family with the passing of the family pet. These stories most often centre around the family dog but the passing of other pets certainly carry these emotions. What is remarkable from the perspective of a hair specialist is the evidence that I can see on the scalp that the death of the family pet has triggered hair loss in the owner.
From time to time, I see clear evidence when I examine the scalp of some sort of ‘event’ that happened just a few months prior. Sometimes, it surprises me as it might be something I did not expect to see when I examine a person’s scalp. I might stop and turn to the patient and ask “Was their any type of major stress or illness or new medication or new diet that happened a few months ago?”
The patient might look at me and say “Well, I don’t think so. Everything has been the same. Oh wait - let me think about this - our dog died around that time.”
Hair loss from stress
It’s well known that stress can cause humans to shed hair. Stress, just like low iron levels or thyroid problems, or medications and dieting can cause an increase in the amount of shedding. Instead of losing 50 to 70 hairs per day the patient now loses 100, 200 or 300 hairs per day. There’s a long list of causes of shedding. We instinctively know that stress from loss of the family pet is probably included on these lists, but we just don’t ever see it on the list. I propose that we at least keep it in mind. Most people feel that their concerns will be dismissed as ‘it’s just your dog’ …. and rarely discuss it with health care providers.
Telogen Effluvium Canis Mortalis: Hair Shedding When The Family Dog Dies.
We don’t really have a good word in the medical literature to describe hair shedding that we see when a dog dies. I refer to it as telogen effluvium canis mortalis - and will stick with that until someone offers a better term. I’ve seen many examples over the years. It’s often subtle and one really only picks up on it when they ask about it. The loss of the family pet causes a profound sadness that can affect the body enough to cause hair loss. The shedding usually happens a month or two after the pet dies.
The research surrounding the relationship between pets and humans is truly fascinating. When you look at the research data, it becomes more obvious why delicate hair follicles increasingly fall out of the scalp (in some people) when the family pet dies. Simply put, pets may have an important effect on human function.
In 2017 Swedish researchers investigated whether owning a dog affects how likely people develop heart disease and how likely they are to die after developing some type of heart disease. The authors used a large database of over 3 million people in Sweden (n = 3,432,153) with up to 12 years of follow-up to study the health outcomes of people who own pets. 13 % of people in the study owned dogs. Interestingly, people who owned dogs had less heart disease and a lower risk of death from many causes including heart disease. In 2019, Mubanga and colleagues again looked further into why this might occur. They found the lower risk of heart disease and death was not from pet owners having lower blood pressure or lower cholesterol. Some other factors are involved.
These Swedish studies are sure interesting. In Sweden, people must register their pets in a national database so it’s possible to link a patient’s health to whether they own a pet. Mubanga recently again used the Swedish National Patient Register to look closer at patients aged 40 to 85 presenting to the hospital with heart attacks or strokes. What were the results? Well, dog owners had a lower risk of death after being in the hospital for a heart attack. The same findings was true for those who had strokes. In addition, people who had dogs as pets were less like to have another heart attack (second ‘repeat’ heart attack).
COMMENTS AND CONCLUSION
When it comes to properly evaluating hair loss, everything matters. Yes, it’s a bit daunting sometimes - but everything matters. Physicians must at least consider the family pet as they go about understanding the family structure of the patient and their potential sources of stress when the family pet dies.
It’s clear that having pets affects not only risks for heart disease and stroke, but many aspects of our health. This is an important area of current research around the world. We certainly have a lot to learn but the emphasis here is that pet ownership is tied in to our health. Some studies have shown that pet ownership reduces the risk for some autoimmune diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis.
Cholapranee A et al. Environmental Hygiene and Risk of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2016 Sep;22(9):2191-9.
Mubanga et al. Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death - a nationwide cohort study. Sci Rep. 2017 Nov 17;7(1):15821. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-16118-6.
Mubanga et al. Dog ownership and cardiovascular risk factors: a nationwide prospective register-based cohort study. BMJ Open. 2019 Mar 7;9(3):e023447. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023447.
Mubanga et al. Dog Ownership and Survival After a Major Cardiovascular Event: A Register-Based Prospective Study.Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2019 Oct;12(10):e005342.
Dr. Jeff Donovan is a Canadian and US board certified dermatologist specializing exclusively in hair loss. To schedule a consultation, please call the Whistler office at 604.283.1887