Plasma cortisol levels were examined to assess the stress of dogs in a county animal shelter. Groups of dogs confined in the shelter for their 1st, 2nd, or 3rd day had higher cortisol levels than did a group maintained in the shelter for more than 9 days. Dogs in the shelter for an intermediate period (Day 4–9) had intermediate levels of cortisol. The cortisol concentrations of dogs during their first day in the shelter were greater than either those of the same dogs on Day 4/5 in the shelter or those of a group of pet dogs sampled in their own homes. There was no overall effect of 20 min of social interaction with a human (e.g., petting) on the plasma cortisol levels of dogs in the shelter on Day 1–3. However, the gender of the petter did affect cortisol levels. Those dogs interacting with a female had lower cortisol concentrations at the end of the session than did dogs interacting with a male. The results suggest that confinement in a public animal shelter produces a prolonged activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Further, it appears that some subtle aspect of interaction with a human may be capable of moderating this response. Possible implications for the welfare of confined dogs, and for the development of behavior problems in dogs obtained from shelters, are discussed.
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