Dogs certainly appear to develop depression, although perhaps not the same sort of depression humans experience. I say this because, frankly, we don’t know for sure. We don’t know exactly what our canine companions are thinking because they can’t answer our questions.
We figure dogs are blue because they display the tell-tale signs of depression like loss of appetite, inactivity, hiding and withdrawal and excessive sleeping. Before leaping to a diagnosis of depression, veterinarians must first rule out many other conditions that can cause identical symptoms, such as pain, hormonal or electrolyte imbalances, cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS, or a form of canine dementia), heart disease, abnormal blood pressure and more.
Why do dogs get depressed?
Most cases of doggie depression are triggered by major life changes. These include loss of a pet parent or other pet, moving into a new home, job and schedule changes and following surgery or significant illness or injury. Most dogs recover within a couple of weeks, but depression can also be life-threatening in rare cases.
I once treated a dog that refused to eat for two weeks after the unexpected death of an owner. We were forced to hospitalize and tube feed the dog for a week before he resumed eating on his own. Without a dedicated veterinary team, committed owner support and both behavioral modification and prescription medications, there’s no doubt in my mind this dog would’ve grieved himself to death. Within six months, he was revitalized and lived a long and happy life.
How can I help my best friend feel better?
The majority of dogs that develop depression can be treated at home. One key is to not reinforce the depressed state by offering treats and rewards to a dog that refuses to go for walks or eat. Instead, find something the dog enjoys and and reward that healthy behavior. Most cases will improve within two to four weeks. Some dogs will require antidepressant medications to ease them back to normal. If you think your dog is becoming depressed, contact your veterinarian immediately for help.
Do dogs develop other mental illnesses?
It’s also true that dogs develop mental illness. Dogs can acquire forms of anxiety (especially separation anxiety when left alone or apart from their owner), compulsive disorders, many fears and phobias and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most veterinarians are trained to deal with these conditions. Perhaps the best predictor of successful treatment is early intervention. Alert your veterinarian as soon as you notice any abnormal or undesirable behaviors.
Is there such a thing as “doggie psychologists”?
This is where pet parents must be extremely careful. There are many self-proclaimed, untrained and uncredentialed “pet experts” who claim to be “pet behaviorists” and “dog psychologists.” Many promise instant results and employ questionable and potentially harmful techniques. The first expert you should consult about pet depression or mental illness is a licensed veterinarian.
Many veterinarians have extensive training and experience treating these conditions. Your veterinarian may also refer you to a board-certified animal behavior specialist. They are officially, and legally, recognized animal behaviorists. Some of the main advantages of seeking behavioral help from a veterinarian are their structured training and credentials, access to the latest treatment advances, referrals to specialists and the ability to prescribe psychoactive medications when necessary.
No pet should ever suffer from depression or mental illness without professional help. Today’s veterinarians are better trained and more attentive to behavioral issues than ever. Solving your pet’s behavioral problem starts with a simple conversation. Start it. Your pet deserves it.