Dogs may not have the same capacity for reasoning as humans, but it doesn’t mean they don’t get depressed. The causes of depression in dogs are not as complex as the mental disorder that people experience. However, the symptoms are often similar in nature. Learn more about depression in dogs and help your best friend get through this.
Causes of Depression in Dogs
How do you fight an invisible enemy? The first step is recognizing the problem. One thing you should be aware of as a dog owner is that major changes in a dog’s life may lead to periods of depression. Here are examples of these changes and other causes of depression in dogs.
The most common trigger of severe depression in dogs is the loss of a companion animal or owner. Maybe a housemate or neighborhood dog they played with have gone (i.e., on a vacation, moved away, died). Maybe a child in the home has grown up and moved out. What makes this difficult is that there is no way to explain this to your dog and the source of the behavior is irreplaceable. Losing a playmate, especially an in-home playmate, is often a reason for depression in dogs. Some dogs respond well to the addition of a new pet, while others remain depressive, wanting only the company of the one who’s gone.
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Existing health problems can cause dogs to act depressed. Contact your veterinarian right away if you notice signs of depression in your dog. It is important to first rule out a physical cause for your dog’s depressive behavior before things get worse. If your vet does find a physical illness, follow the prescribed treatment. Hopefully, your dog’s depression will improve once he recovers from the health problem.
Changes in environment
Like so many of us, dogs are creatures of habit. Even if you move to a bigger house with an even bigger yard, your dog may miss their favorite bone hiding spots. Moving to a new home, a general change of scenery (like a renovation), or even a change in the weather can adversely affect a happy dog. It usually takes time for a dog to adjust to such changes. If this is the cause of your dog’s depression, worry not as it’s not likely to last long.
Are you depressed or sick? Dogs can feel our pain. It has long been established that they are empathetic creatures. They certainly can tune in to people’s subtle changes in body language and emotion, so they can be affected by a family member’s depression. Sooner or later, the dog will be able to pick up on your energy and may begin to feel similar to how you feel.
Lack of attention
If you bring home a new spouse, roommate, pet, or baby, you may notice a change in your pooch. Your dog may become jealous of the time you spend with this new person or pet and become withdrawn. Also, accepting a job with drastically different hours can affect more than just your sleep. Going from the day shift to the night shift, for example, can also mean that your dog won’t get their regular early morning walk.
“Dogs are social animals and love to be with people,” says Carol Sumbry, a certified dog trainer and associate certified behavior consultant. “Many are left alone long hours without access to human contact, access to bathroom facilities, or an outlet for their energy or natural instincts.”
The way you train your dog may lead to depressive behavior, according to Jane Bowers, also a certified dog trainer and certified canine behavior consultant. “Dogs who are corrected for unwanted behavior may soon stop offering behaviors at all in order to avoid punishment,” she says.
Sumbry adds that using things like shock collars or other extreme forms of punishment may lead to a state of mind known as learned helplessness, which can be associated with depression in dogs. “This occurs when people or animals feel helpless to avoid negative situations,” she says. “In studies, dogs no longer tried to escape shocks if they had been conditioned to believe they couldn’t escape.”
Symptoms of Depression in Dogs
So how do you know if your best friend has depression? Here are the common signs, many of which are similar to the symptoms of depression in people.
Just like humans, depressed dogs either eat much less or much more as if their life depended on it. When dogs are extremely sad, they stop eating altogether and lose a significant amount of weight. In this situation, it’s always best to look for sudden and/or extreme changes in their appetite.
It’s old news that dogs spend a huge part of their lives sleeping. The average adult dog sleeps about 12 to 14 hours in a 24-hour period. Puppies sleep 18 to 20 hours, so it would be difficult to notice an increase here. If you leave your dog for a long time (say, for work) and they continue to sleep after you get home, barely reacting to your presence, something is probably wrong. If your adult dog also starts sleeping like a puppy, they may be depressed.
Loss of interest
Just like depressed people, depressed dogs may suddenly lose interest in playing, going for walks, and doing other things that used to normally excite them. Dogs who become less active are most likely depressed or physically ill.
Paw licking or chewing
Incessant licking and/or chewing may be a sign that your dog has the blues. Keep in mind that there are also physiological reasons for your dog to lick their paws too, such as bacterial infections, eczema, joint pain, and dry skin. However, if your dog is exhibiting other signs on this list aside from the excessive licking, it may be due to depression. Depressed dogs lick and/or chew their paws to soothe themselves.
Dogs are pack animals, so being around others is important. When they retreat and begin spending more time alone, it is never a good sign. Depressed dogs may hide in the closet, under the bed, or beneath the stairs to be alone.
Note: Vets warn that these symptoms also can mean a dog has a medical problem, so the first course of action should always be a full checkup by a veterinarian. A pet that mopes around and no longer wants to go for walks could simply have pain from arthritis, Bonnie Beaver, DVM, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, says.
Treatment for Depression in Dogs
Beaver said that although it’s not uncommon for pets to get down, especially during periods of change, it’s actually rare for dogs to suffer from long-term depression. Here are tips to cheer your pup up:
An increase in your dog’s activity level is the next step to helping your depressed dog. Exercising with your dog is a wonderful way to begin. Sumbry says a good starting point for exercise is a total of five miles of walking per week, but that varies from dog to dog, depending on age and their breed’s energy level. It’s more important to let your dog take their time and enjoy the surroundings, she says, even if that means you just do one block in 20 or 30 minutes.
Engage in fun activities
Try to engage in fun activities with your dog, like games, fun tricks, and general training. Introduce them to your friends and other dogs and go on trips with them. You may also consider letting your dog play with other dogs in dog parks or go to doggie daycare. Soon, let them ride in your car when you eat out, visit the groomer or pet supply store, or go travel with them. If they’re not trained to be socialized yet, see our guide here.
Also, information from the Scottish SPCA indicates that dogs really like music! Responses indicate that dogs’ taste in music may vary as much as ours, but they seem more likely to enjoy reggae and soft rock over other types of music. Throw on some tunes and dance or sing with them. If you’re a musician, play music for them. Sometimes they even sing along!
Make time for them
If you’re experiencing a major change in your life yourself, always keep in mind that your dog is one of your responsibilities as well. Don’t forget to make time for them. Plan a schedule and stick to it. You don’t have to be a canine behavioral therapist to know that your dog craves your attention. If possible, give your dog more positive feedback and relaxed cuddle time. If the time you are able to spend with your dog doesn’t seem sufficient, consider hiring a dog walker or asking a friend to stop by while you are gone.
Also, note that too much cuddling and comforting may actually reinforce the sad behavior. It is very important to try your best to stay on schedule and stick to a routine. This can give your dog a sense of security.
Instead of punishing for “poor” or “negative” behavior, Bowers recommends rewarding for good behavior. “Dogs trained with rewards are often more confident and attentive to their owners than those who are punished,” she says. Every time they achieve a milestone of behavioral improvement, offer them a treat.
Some people prefer to go the traditional route and opt for prescription medication for dog depression. Studies have shown that the following medications are relatively safe and effective, but be aware that they may have unwanted side effects. Medication such as amitriptyline, doxepin, and even fluoxetine are often prescribed.
You may not think depression is a big problem. Even in humans, the topic of depression brings along a social stigma. While it is true that depression in dogs are often resolved on its own after the dog adjusts to changes, there are times when it only gets worse. If left too long, it could very well turn into a life-threatening physical condition. Get help with your dog’s depression as soon as you can.
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