Social support has a positive influence on the course of a depression and social housing of rats could provide an animal model for studying the neurobiological mechanisms of social support. Male and female rats were subjected to chronic footshock stress for 3 weeks and pair-housing of rats was used to mimic social support. Rats were isolated or housed with a partner of the opposite sex. A plastic tube was placed in each cage and subsequently used as a 'safe' area in an open field test. Time spent in the tube was used as a measurement of anxiety levels. Chronic stress increased adrenal weights in all groups, except for isolated females who showed adrenal hypertrophy in control conditions. In isolated males, chronic stress resulted in an increase in the time the animals spent in the tube. While stress did not affect this parameter in socially housed males, males with a stressed partner showed a similar response as isolated stressed males. Even though adrenal weights showed that isolated females were more affected by stress, after chronic stress exposure, they spent less time in the tube than socially housed females. Socially housed stressed females spent less time in the 'safe' tube compared to control counterparts, indicating that stress has a gender-specific behavioral effect.
In conclusion: pair-housing had a stress-reducing effect on behavior in males. Isolation of females was stressful by itself. Pair housing of females was not able to prevent stress-induced behavioral changes completely, but appeared to reduce the effects of chronic stress.