Dog Depression Will Break Your Heart, Too
Today is National Depression Screening Day, dedicated to educating and raising awareness of the common condition. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event, hosted by Screening For Mental Health, a Boston-based company. Depression affects 14.8 million Americans, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 6.7 percent of U.S. adults.
The health benefits of pets are widely known, especially for treatment of depression and anxiety. (See emotional support dogs and therapy dogs!) But what happens when it’s the dog who has depression?
Recognizing Depression in Dogs
As you can imagine, diagnosing dog depression is a bit tricker than for humans. Instead of having the patient fill out a survey or questionnaire, veterinarians must rely on the observations of pet parents. “It’s hard to know because we can’t ask them,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, Executive Director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “But in clinical practice, there are a few situations where that is the only explanation.”
Symptoms of Dog Depression
The signs of depression in dogs are fairly vague and can also indicate many other medical conditions. Loss of appetite, weight loss, disinterest in activities, excessive sleeping, and being “grumpy” or withdrawn are indicators something is off with your pet. You know your dog better than anyone, so it’s important to pay attention to any sudden changes in behavior or activity.
If you decide to visit your vet, write down all the symptoms your pet is experiencing, as well as any medications, supplements or prescription diets you’re using. Keep in mind that just because your dog doesn’t want to go on his daily walk or has stopped eating, that doesn’t necessarily indicate it’s depression. Arthritis and hip dysplasia can cause joint pain, leading to disinterest in exercise; loss of appetite is also a symptom of parasites, cancer or an intestinal obstruction.
Dog Depression Causes
Typically a sudden, traumatic change is responsible for depression in dogs. Loss of a family member – human or animal – is the most commonly reported causes. Adding a new pet, spouse or baby can also trigger depression, especially in dogs with a history of anxiety or other behavioral issues. Changes to the household routine, like kids going back to school or taking a new shift at work, can unsettle dogs and leave them feeling abandoned or unsafe.
Animals are exceptionally intuitive – like when pets curl up with us when we’re sick – so a change to your emotional state can affect your dog, too. All of the above conditions (death, new parenthood, moving) are also risk factors for depression in humans. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself, so you can take care of your pet.
How to Treat Depression in Dogs
Up to 80 percent of humans treated for depression report some improvement after four to six weeks; the success rate for dogs is similar. Treatment for dog depression focuses on lifestyle changes, namely paying special attention to your pup. Find what makes your pet happy – is it car rides, the dog park, or playing fetch in the backyard? “If the only thing that still gets a little tail wag out of your dog is a car ride, then take him for a series of short rides each day, praising and rewarding him when he appears happier,” advises Dr. Beaver. Praising signs of happiness in your pup is another approach suggested by animal behaviorists. Just be careful not to reward negativity, only giving treats for positive behaviors like tail wagging. If your dog’s depression is due to the loss of a canine companion, providing another can often help with loneliness. (October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, wink wink…)
Medications may also be used to treat dog depression when lifestyle and behavior modifications prove unsuccessful. The drugs prescribed are the same humans use: Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft. Excessive thirst, sleepiness, and diarrhea or vomiting are the most common symptoms, mild but concerning for some pet parents. Unlike in humans, drug treatment is temporary, with most dogs recovering and weaned off in six to twelve months.