Depression is often a misunderstood illness. It is no surprise then that many people think that this problem is reserved for humans and that dogs can’t suffer from depression. While depression in humans is not exactly the same as depression in dogs, it can still present a serious problem for canine population and their owners.
How to Know if Your Dog Is Depressed?
Depression in dogs is typically observed through behavioral changes that can’t be explained by any other health issues. These behavioral or mood changes in the dog usually include decreased interest in their normal activities or changes in interaction with you and other people.
Studies show that boredom and lack of mental stimulation that lead to apathy are often one of the main causes of depression in pets (Wemelsfelder 1993; Meyer-Holzapfel 1968; Carlstead 1996), but there could be a number of other reasons too.
Human depression is a complex clinical condition and has many sub-types. One of them is generalized depression, which is diagnosed after talking with the patient. Since this is not possible to do with dogs, depression that affects canines is considered different and impossible to diagnose in the same way.
That’s why it is important to know the symptoms of depression in dogs and when you need to take your dog to the vet and start taking measures to treat depression in your pooch.
Symptoms of Depression in Dogs
Symptoms of dog depression are similar to symptoms that humans suffer from. Dogs can become withdrawn, inactive and change their eating and sleeping habits, like sleep more and eat less. Some dogs may lick their paws excessively to soothe themselves. Many signs of dog's depression are similar to those of a stressed out dog.
Your pup can show a lack of interest in exercise, walks, playtime and other activities they usually enjoy. You may notice that your dog is hiding or avoiding you. In some cases, dogs with depression can display a sudden onset of aggression and become disoriented or lost, even at home.
Many of these symptoms can also be explained by various medical conditions, which is why it is important to take your dog to the veterinarian to get the proper diagnosis and rule out other diseases or problems before it could be determined that depression is the main culprit.
ALSO READ: 30 Ways to Entertain a Bored Dog
Causes of Dog Depression
Dogs usually suffer from depression after some major changes in their lives but it can also be caused by some minor problems, or improper care for the dog. Here are some of the most common causes of dog depression.
Mental stimulation is just as important as physical one – regular playtime, games, puzzle toys and other tools that make your pup's brain work. When there's a lack of brain stimulation, or when the pup is regularly ignored by the owner and left to their own devices, boredom is likely to set in, which subsequently leads to apathy.
Boredom in dogs is difficult to assess empirically; however, there's enough research to suggest that boredom is closely related to problematic and stereotypical behavior in depressed dogs (Wood-Gush et al. 1983; Gunn et al. 1995; Paquette et al. 1988). Once boredom and apathy have set in in the dog, the next stage is likely to be depression, as observed in the above mentioned studies.
Similarly to boredom, it's important to help prevent and manage stress in dogs to avoid that growing into depression. There are many reasons dogs can experience significant amount of stress, and boredom is one of them (Maier 1984; Gilmer et al. 2003). Once that happens, the illness follows the similar trajectory of boredom in dogs.
3. Physical Illness
Depression in dogs can also often be the result of some other health issue. Your vet will always try to rule out physical problems if you notice any behavior changes. Painful conditions and problems will almost certainly make your dog act differently.
Chemical imbalances in the brain can also be to blame, just like they can be with humans.
4. Environmental Changes
Environment is often of huge importance. Changes in your dog’s environment or schedule can trigger depression. Moving to a new home is one of the most common cause of depression in dogs due to a high amount of stress. Even a change of scenery like a house renovation can trigger depression. Weather can also impact your dog’s mood but unlikely to cause depression. Dogs can react dramatically to environmental changes and it may take them time to adjust to the new circumstances.
When regularly left alone for a prolonged period of time within the same environment, dogs can get bored, stressed and later depressed, too. When your pet's environment is the same and his routine is the same, without you there to stimulate and play with the dog, it will negatively affect his overall health (Anisman et al. 2005).
Dogs grieve just like humans for the loss of their human or animal companions. Your dog’s depression can be caused by death in the family, or your dog may be grieving for someone who just moved away or went on vacation. Losing a favorite playmate can often be behind canine depression, especially a playmate from the same home. As the dog continues to miss and stress over a companion that's now gone, their mental health may start deteriorating.
Your dog may have a phobia that makes him act depressed. Dogs often show fear in different manners than you might expect. Your pooch might be trying not to seem scared so he doesn’t look vulnerable and retreat from his regular activities in order to protect himself instead; other times it's simply difficult to tell when the dog is scared when the signs aren't very clear.
By now research has shown that dogs can feel their owners' emotions. If you are sick or depressed, your dog will usually pick up on the signs and your energy, which can make him feel like you do. The pet may also feel depressed if you are not home for long periods of time, which is similar to separation anxiety without the acting out.
How to Treat Depression in Dogs
Most dogs with mild signs of depression will get better within a few days to a couple of months, with nothing more than extra attention and love. However, depending on the causes, it may be necessary to treat depression in a dog with medications. Here some of the most effective treatments for dog depression.
1. Exercise Your Dog
One of the most effective ways is treat depression in dogs is to provide more physical exercise. Set up a regular playtime and training routines for your dog. Exercise is recommended for humans to fight depression as well and dogs are not much different in that regard.
Increased physical activity will encourage your dog’s endorphin production and prevent obesity, which can reduce his energy levels even further and prolong his depression. Try to find new ways to play and train with your dog – pick out new doggy workout routines, try indoors and outdoors games, set up agility jumps in your backyard and run around with your pet. There's a huge number of new activities you can always try.
2. Stick to Daily Routines
Breaking up your dog’s daily routine is one of the possible causes of depression. Dogs are creatures of habit and changes to their regular schedule can make them feel confused, insecure and uncomfortable. Try to walk your dog regularly, feed him at the same time every day and stick to the schedule regarding his bedtime, playtime, grooming, etc.
That said, this only applies when your dog's regular routines provide him with enough physical and mental exercise – plenty of training, playtime, toys, communication, petting and so forth. If that's not the case, changes to their routine when the dog is already depressed might be necessary.
Similarly, adding new routines and new things for your dog to do can be of great benefit. Studies have shown that environmental enrichment has many positive effects in animals, and is likely to prevent boredom, apathy, stress and depression (Meagher et al, 2012).
3. Keep Him Entertained
As the above studies indicate, your dog’s boredom can quickly turn to melancholy and apathy. Try to keep your dog stimulated and entertained; communicate with your dog, spend time with him and don't leave your pup alone at home for too long too often. Get him a new interactive toy that stimulates his brain, play a new game with him that he hasn't tried before, teach him a few more cool tricks, etc.
Socialization – both with humans and other animals – can also help your Fido get out of his bad mood, especially if the possible reason for his depression is the loss of a playmate or not having one in the first place. Take your dog to your local dog park as often as you can and schedule regular play dates with other dogs.
You may even consider getting another pet to keep your pooch company, if the conditions for it are right.
4. Reward Positive Behavior
Dogs live to please their owners, and thus require encouragement and signs that they do good work. Use praise and healthy dog treats to reinforce good behavior in your pup. Set up brief training sessions as an excuse to reward him whenever he engages in some activity like taking a walk and doing it correctly, playing a game, or learning a new trick.
However, you need to be careful and ensure that you don’t reward your dog to benefit the cure of depression itself. Don’t break out affection or snacks until he does something worth the praise, otherwise he may associate depressed behavior with getting a reward and you may inadvertently reinforce the dog's melancholic mood.
5. Use Natural Remedies
As an alternative to regular veterinary procedures, you can also consult with your holistic veterinarian and try some homemade or natural remedies if your dog’s depression lasts for more than a couple of weeks. Some of the natural remedies that can help with depression in dogs include various herbs like herb St. John’s wort or sandalwood, which can relax your pooch.
Flower essences like Gentian, Gorse, Honeysuckle, Star of Bethlehem have been used to help with depression as well. You can also try homeopathic remedies like Ignatia, which can help your shake his grief.
6. Use Medications
As the last resort, if nothing else helps and your veterinarian recommends it, you can use medications to help your dog get out of his depressed state. Many of the medications for depression in dogs are the same as those humans use, such as Prozac, Zoloft or Paxil. There are a few other drugs you can use as well, but it's crucial that you've first attempted to fix the cause of depression in your dog (physical and mental stimulation, for example) and that you have your vet assess the pet to pick the right type of medicine.
The most important thing in dealing with your dog’s depression is patience. Just like it takes time for the depression in a dog to set in, it may also take a few months for your pooch to get back to his old self, so try to do all that you can to help him and give him time to get over his depression.
The combination of all the above treatments is likely to result the best and quickest path out of depression.