Scientists have long debated whether animals can experience sadness and grief, mourn their dead, or feel empathy. A growing body of evidence says they can. And if that’s the case, it makes sense they would also experience feelings of sadness connected to loss or change — what we humans would call depression.
While it's unlikely that dogs and humans experience depression in the same way, there can certainly be times when dogs are feeling low or less interested in their surroundings and the people around them. “It’s harder to understand depression in dogs than it is in humans because dogs cannot tell us how they’re feeling, whether the depression is emotional or connected to some physical issue,” says Melissa M. Brock, a board-certified veterinarian and an author at Pango Pets. “We can tell when a human is sad or depressed, but dogs are more difficult to read.”
In this guide, we’ll take a look at how depression can affect dogs, and what we can do to help them.
Causes of Canine Depression
A number of different factors and life experiences can cause your dog to be depressed.
Perhaps the biggest driver of depression in dogs is major changes to the dog's routine, says Dr. Brock. She adds that dogs are very sensitive to change; if they aren't acclimated to a new schedule, their owner leaves them at home for longer than usual, or any other kind of significant change occurs, it can throw off their routine. “This can cause anxiety, which can lead to depression,” Dr. Brock explains.
The same is true about moving to a new home. Major life changes like moving are stressful for people, but can be even more so for dogs. “Dogs have learned to associate certain places with safety and security, and they may not understand why they are being moved away from those safe spots,” Dr. Brock says. “Moving also disrupts established routines, which can make things even more confusing for the dog.”
Additionally, if you're a dog owner who has recently changed jobs or have been through a divorce or had a baby, you may notice that such dramatic changes may also cause your furry friend to show common signs of depression. “Babies cry often and unpredictably, making it difficult for dogs to get used to them as family members,” says Dr. Brock.
Dogs will also mourn the loss of an owner. Dogs form strong bonds with their owners, and they may feel abandoned or rejected when the relationship ends, according to Dr. Brock. “This can lead to isolation and loneliness, which can trigger depression,” she adds. And just like many species in the wild, dogs will often mourn the loss of an animal companion.
Rescued dogs with a history of past trauma and abuse are at a particularly high risk of developing depression — and this is actually quite similar to certain types of human depression. “For humans, depression is thought to be related to the way in which the brain processes stress hormones,” explains Dr. Brock. “Animal brains also process stress hormones, and those hormones may trigger depression as well.”
In addition to depression, Dr. Brock says rescued dogs who have suffered trauma or abuse may experience other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including anxiety, fearfulness, and avoidance behaviors such as refusing to go on walks or to interact with people (or other pets) who seem to have a connection to the traumatic event.
One important thing to keep in mind is that when dogs act depressed, it can also be because they are feeling sick or experiencing physical problems. “When considering depression in dogs, it is important to make sure we distinguish between depression and lethargy. While this can be difficult to discern in our canine companions, other clues like decreased appetite and reduced energy are more suggestive of a potential health issue,” says Dr. Amanda Takiguchi, a licensed veterinarian. “Regardless, if you believe your dog is depressed or lethargic, it is always safest to consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.”
How to Recognize Depression in Dogs
Recognizing depression in dogs can be tricky because many of the most common symptoms of dog depression mimic symptoms of physical illness. “Lethargy, sleeping more than usual, destruction of property in the home, and problems with going to the bathroom inside the house are all possible indicators,” according to Dr. Brock.
Sometimes it’s the little things too, says Dr. Takiguchi. “Although we cannot verbally communicate with our dogs, I always remind owners that they know their dogs best,” she explains. “So even if it may seem like a minor change in behavior, if it is out of character for your dog, it may be an indicator of depression. These can be seemingly subtle things such as less interest in that squirrel in the backyard, or not wanting to go as far on your usual walk.”
Sometimes it’s a mix of other symptoms, such as:
Loss of appetite or refusal to eat once-favorite foods
Sleeping too much, especially during the day
Usual routines and surroundings have lost their appeal and your dog is not in the mood to play or interact with the people around them
Frequent howling or whimpering for no apparent reason
Urinary or fecal incontinence, especially while sleeping
Compulsive behaviors, such as excessive and repeated licking or biting of the legs
Not showing affection anymore
Hiding under tables or behind furniture, or being constantly on the move and unable to settle down
If you notice any of these symptoms, the first thing you should do is have your dog checked by a vet: You may actually be seeing signs of a medical condition, and treating this condition may be the only thing you need to do to help your dog feel better. For obvious reasons, physical pain or discomfort can make for a sad dog. “If your dog is lethargic and not moving around much, it could also be a sign that they are sick or in pain,” says Dr. Brock.
Treating Dog Depression
Once your vet has ruled out health issues as an underlying cause, there are a number of ways to help your dog recover from depression.
“Dogs are surprisingly resilient creatures but we can do things to try to help them overcome symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Takiguchi. “Specifically, we need to provide our dogs with appropriate physical activity as well as mental stimulation and enrichment.” Still, Dr. Takiguchi points out that every dog and situation is different, and therefore there is no set amount of time it takes for depression to improve or resolve.
Establishing a fixed routine can be one of the best ways for pet parents to jumpstart the recovery process. Dr. Brock says a routine can help keep your dog’s life organized and give them a sense of control and predictability, both of which are key for managing anxiety. Even something as simple as walking them and feeding them at the same times each day can provide a sense of security.
“It's important that the routine be something that your dog enjoys doing and finds relaxing,” Dr. Brock says. “For example, if your dog loves going for walks, then you could use this as part of their daily routine. You can also incorporate other things like meal times, playtime, naps or even just cuddles into your daily schedule.”
There are many other ways you can help a depressed dog to feel better, including:
Offer your dog more attention — but only at the right times. Otherwise, you might wind up incentivizing or reinforcing depressive behaviors. “If your dog is acting out or being destructive as part of their depression, do your best to ignore this behavior and remove triggers or situations where this behavior might occur,” says Dr. Takiguchi. Then offer a treat or praise when he’s wagging his tail or grabbing a toy instead.
Keep your dog active and entertained. This includes regular walks, playtimes, and any special activities that you know they enjoy. Lack of exercise — and lack of attention — can hurt your dog's mental health. “Since physical activity often improves depression, I recommend associating positive rewards with activities like walking and offer a small treat every time you put your dog's leash on before a walk,” Dr. Takiguchi suggests. And while many people only think about walking or playing fetch as possible physical activities for their dogs, Dr. Takiguchi encourages pet parents to get creative. “I personally use puzzle toys for my dogs,” she says. “These toys often encourage dogs to engage physically and mentally in order to get treats out of the toys.”
Help your dog recover their appetite. If your dog isn’t eating (and physical health problems have been ruled out), Dr. Brock says there are several things you can do to encourage them to return to their usual eating habits. “First and foremost, don’t panic: Dogs will eat when they feel better,” Dr. Brock explains. You can also try adding a topper to the food to encourage eating, or offer special treats. “It may also help if you take your dog for a walk around the block or let them play in the yard for a few minutes each day. Exercise helps dogs feel more energetic and motivated to eat.”
Consider bringing another pet home — especially if your dog just lost a companion. Just keep in mind: While dogs are social animals, you should only consider getting a new dog, puppy, or other pet if it makes sense for your current living situation. Alternatively, a lonely dog may feel better with more frequent visits to the park or training classes. “Personally, I take my dog to doggy daycare,” Dr. Takiguchi says. “This has been great for helping him learn how to interact appropriately with other dogs. I have also found that he is less likely to be destructive or act out at home when he gets consistent physical and mental stimulation at doggy daycare.”
Give your dog some space. While attention is good, some dogs also need a little time on their own, says Karis Nafte, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). Nafte points out that if you are the type of person who wants attention when you feel sad, you might assume your dog is the same, and follow them to make them feel better if they go to a different room. “However, dogs are not that complicated — lots of dogs just need some alone time,” Nafte says. “I have four dogs and one of them regularly takes time for himself. He will go in the yard alone or up in a bedroom without any people or dogs, sometimes for a few hours. He just likes space to himself, so I leave him alone and he comes out to hang out with the family when he is ready.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Discuss Medication With Your Vet
Some dogs do need medication to treat depression, but this is a decision best left to your veterinarian, according to Dr. Brock. “The vet will perform a physical exam on your dog to check for any other potential causes of symptoms that may mimic depression (such as pain), and then they can decide if medication would be appropriate for your pet,” Dr. Brock says. “Vets will never prescribe medications like Prozac to dogs unless they are absolutely necessary — in other words, if all other options have been exhausted and medication is still needed to treat symptoms of depression.”
Aside from prescription antidepressants, your vet might have some suggestions for supplements or other nutritional options that can be appropriate for dogs with depression. “For example, studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help with depression in humans, so it's reasonable to assume that they may also help dogs with the same condition,” Dr. Brock says.
Know When to Ask for Help
If you're observing particularly severe signs of dog depression, you may need a professional animal behaviorist to help you develop a personalized behavior modification plan. A behaviorist can also help you understand what might be triggering your dog's sadness. “Working with a qualified dog behaviorist is always a good idea if you are not sure why your dog is acting in a particular way,” says Nafte. “It is our job to understand the complexities of dog behavior and guide owners with programs and ideas to make sure your dog is a happy and content soul.”
Nafte says that sometimes something as simple as going on a hike in a new place, or taking a car ride to a different dog park or play area, can have a huge positive impact. You might also need to change your dog’s environment to eliminate stressors or to help you better adapt to your dog’s needs. “You need to learn how to recognize the events that are likely to cause a shutdown reaction from your dog, and how to teach them that the world is safe,” Nafte says.
Finally, as painful as this might be to even consider, sometimes the best option is rehoming your dog. Just ask yourself: Does your current routine or living situation prevent you from giving your dog the time, energy, and attention they need? And if necessary, are you able or willing to make changes to your own life? The fact is, placing a dog in a more suitable living situation is sometimes the most responsible choice — and the most loving one.
This should only be a pet owner's last resort, of course. If you take a smart, dedicated approach to identifying and treating your pup's depression, they're likely to be a happy, healthy member of your household for a long time to come.
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