Unlike humans, dogs can’t verbalize what they are feeling. But even though dogs experience different emotions than we do, experts recognize that mental health problems akin to depression can occur in canines.
How to Spot Signs of Depression in Dogs
The symptoms of depression will vary depending on the individual dog and the severity of the problem. There are some key things to look out for, however, including changes in body language during their interactions with people and other pets, decreased appetite, and lethargic behavior.
Dr. Leslie Sinn runs Behavior Solutions and is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) and certified professional dog trainer.
“The main thing would be a change in normal demeanor,” she says. “What I hear from most of my clients is that their dog is not that willing to engage in activities that previously they seemed to really enjoy.”
She gives the example of a dog who normally loves to play fetch, but now they may play for one or two rounds then aren’t really that interested.
Dr. Sinn also lists other signs, including “clingy, needy behavior, and, perhaps, a need to be closer to the owner in general.” Some dogs, however, can go the other way and become excessively withdrawn.
Ruling Out Pain or an Underlying Medical Condition
The symptoms of depression are commonly similar to those displayed in a dog suffering from an underlying medical condition or chronic pain. Sometimes these can even be triggers for depression.
Dr. Sinn always encourages owners to have their dog medically evaluated to rule out any medical problems. “In general, if a dog is slowing down or is reluctant to engage, especially in the absence of some life-changing event, then I would bet huge amounts of money that it is medical or pain-related,” she says.
Common Causes of Depression in Dogs
If you suspect your dog is suffering from depression, ask yourself what has changed in their life and environment.
There are a variety of triggers for depression. Sometimes it’s an obvious thing, but it can also be more subtle changes or a combination of issues that have built up over time.
“Depression, in animals anyway, is something that we tend to associate with a specific event,” says Dr. Sinn. “It could be the loss of an owner, the loss of a buddy that they have grown up with, or a huge lifestyle change—a big move, or the addition or subtraction of key members of their social group. It tends to be context-specific.”
She explains that “people should look at their dog’s basic environmental and social circumstances” to understand what may have brought about the changes in their behavior.
Some common triggers include:
- Grief while mourning the loss of a human or animal companion.
- Chronic pain.
- Trauma, including injury, abuse, or long-term stress.
- Environmental changes such as a house move, rehoming, or the addition of a new baby or pet to the household. Even things like children going back to school after extended holidays or a change in your work pattern could be factors.
- Social isolation.
- Insufficient physical and/or mental stimulation. This is especially true for high-energy, driven, working breeds
Dr. Sinn explains that some of the most severe cases of depression she has seen are from “dogs coming out of just horrific rescue circumstances—hoarding situations, meat farm dogs, that kind of thing.”
Dr. Kelly Ballantyne is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and the leader of Insight Animal Behavior Services, says that serious behavioral issues often result from a combination of genetics, early life experiences, the physical and social environment, and ongoing learning processes. “We regularly meet with experienced dog owners who provide appropriate amounts of exercise, enrichment, play, and training, and still have dogs that suffer from fear, anxiety, and depression.”
“You could have a very, very anxious dog that has a lot of behavioral suppression,” adds Dr. Sinn. “It really kind of freezes or shuts down and that whole process can lead to depression. The dog doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to do much of anything. It doesn’t want to engage and, consequently, removes itself from social interaction.”
In these severe cases, treating the problem is not typically straightforward.
How to Treat Depression in Dogs
As Dr. Sinn points out, dogs are amazingly resilient. If there is a significant event associated with their depression, often some simple environmental and social changes can make a huge difference. She suggests things like “spending some extra time with them, taking them on extra fun walks, playing a little tug, or having a little grooming session.” Usually, with a little time, extra attention, and enjoyable enrichment, your dog will move through their depression without any major difficulty.
For some dogs, their depression is a less transient, more serious long-term issue, and they will need extra support. Dr. Sinn is keen to reiterate that these dogs have often had a particularly traumatic past, and it is not a surprise that they need extra help.
Often behavioral guidance from a professional is recommended, and, in some instances, pharmacological support may be beneficial. “We don’t medicate out of convenience for the owner,” says Dr. Sinn. “But if the poor dog is unable to function the majority of the time, then something needs to be done to address the quality of life and welfare of that individual.”
Dr. Ballantyne explains that pharmaceuticals are very helpful in cases where a dog’s underlying emotional state is interfering with their ability to learn new behaviors or negatively impacting their quality of life. “This is especially true when there are many different types of triggers for the dog’s fear or anxiety, or when the triggers are unavoidable.” She gives the example of a depressed dog who is terrified of storms and lives in an area where storms are frequent for months throughout the year.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that pharmaceutical options aren’t the only treatment for dogs suffering from mental illness, but rather just a part of the treatment plan,” points out Dr. Ballantyne. “Often the most effective treatment plans include a combination of pharmaceuticals, careful environmental management, and behavior modification, rather than just one of these modalities.”