The Stress Virus

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Stress, like laughter, is highly contagious.

Previous studies have shown that levels of the stress hormone cortisol can spike in people simply observing other individuals experiencing stress.

Now, researchers are focusing on whether stress contagion is also common among other members of the animal kingdom, the Washington Post reported.

In 2014, neuroscientists Jaideep Bains and his team studied how stress can pass between mice, discovering that stressed rodents produced a pheromone from their anal glands, which would then be sniffed by other mice nearby.

The pheromones really did a number on the mice, too: When one mouse took a whiff, its pheromones became identical to the other stressed-out rodent.

Bains’ team noted that a similar shift also occurred in a third mouse.

However, their experiments took place in lab environments, leaving scientists wondering if the same phenomenon occurs in the wild.

New technology has helped researchers better monitor how stress impacts animals and spreads: For example, researcher Hanja Brandl has used GPS trackers, video camera traps, and heart-rate loggers to monitor how stress moves among guinea fowl in Kenya.

But just like humans, animals also relieve their stress with help from their community: For instance, vampire bats relax by sharing food.

Still, Brandl suggested that science is merely taking the “first steps” in understanding animal stress transmission, adding that more research “can really fine tune any actions that improve animal well-being in captivity and in the wild.”

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