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Sep 20

Your Dog’s Mental Health: Depression in Dogs

Depressed-looking dog

A depressed dog may look like this miniature pinscher, Athena.

Depression in Dogs

Just like humans, dogs have emotions and sometimes those emotions are overwhelming for dogs. Since they have similar brain structures and neurotransmitters, it makes sense that dogs as well as humans can suffer mental illnesses and conditions. Depression is a common mental disorder in dogs. Dogs often get depressed when there is a change in their surroundings, like the loss or addition of one of their humans or animal companions–in other words, their “pack.”

Do Dogs Have Emotions?

Dogs have many of the same basic emotions as humans. Charles Darwin was the first to assert that animals have emotional reactions to certain stimuli. The view that animals have emotions is in contrast to earlier views, like those of the French philosopher Descartes, which held that emotions were unique to humans.

But man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master.
–Charles Darwin, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals

In his 1872 book, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin systematically studied reactions of animals, including dogs, to emotional events. I certainly believe that my dogs have and express emotions, and when I read the following quote by Darwin, I thought he was describing my dog and me:

“But man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master.”

What Causes Depression in Dogs?

Loss of a Loved One

As with humans, dogs can become depressed after the loss of a loved one–human or furry friend. This is the most common cause of depression in dogs. Many dogs overcome these losses on their own, but sometimes a dog may need special attention. Athena, pictured above, did not have trouble with depression after our other miniature pinscher, Zeus, passed away, although she was convinced that we were hiding him in the spare bedroom. She missed him and looked for him, but was able to cope fairly well with being an only dog.

Addition of a New Pack Member

Dogs can also become depressed when a new animal is introduced into the household. While Athena coped well with the death of Zeus, she did not fare as well when we adopted a new dog, Nano. Athena was very sad about us bringing a new dog into the house. Her whole world was disrupted. I believe that much of her depression actually stemmed from anxiety about her not knowing her place in the pack order.

How Does One Treat Depression in Dogs?

Love Your Dog out of the Blues

Overwhelmingly, most experts agree that extra love, praise, and attention will often help a dog overcome its bout of depression and cope with the new situation.

Keep them engaged, do more of the things they like to do, get them a little more exercise, and they should be fine.
–John Ciribassi, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, as reported by Pets WebMD

Drugs are available to treat depression in dogs, but they are a last resort. A first-line treatment more love and attention. ” Keep them engaged, do more of the things they like to do, get them a little more exercise, and they should be fine,” says John Ciribassi, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, as reported by Pets WebMD.

Athena had all the typical signs of depression: no interest in playing, little interest in being petted, absolutely no use for the new dog, and sleeping more throughout the day than usual. Basically, she acted like she looks in the picture (above). We gave her time to adjust to the new situation, space when she seemed to need it, and we were always available to give her tummy rubs if she wanted them.

Encourage Lively Behavior

However, be careful not to encourage undesirable behavior. You want to see tail wags, ear perks, and excitement in your dog. If you see even the slightest hint of those behaviors, reward your dog with treats and lavish praise. On the other hand, do not reward depressive behavior like moping or acting generally dejected.

Seek Veterinary Care

If your dog acts depressed, keep in close contact with your veterinarian. He or she may have helpful hints or suggestions to bring the joy back to your dog’s life through behavioral remedies. Your veterinarian will also know when it is the right time to think about medications. Many of the same medications that are used to treat depression in humans (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors like Prozac and Zoloft) can be used in dogs to help relieve the neurochemical imbalance in your depressed dog. Many owners are hesitant to use drugs to help their dog’s depression, and this is understandable. As with any drug there are side effects and an owner, in concert with the dog’s veterinarian, should weigh the risks and benefits. However, if behavior modification does not relieve your dog’s symptoms, drugs may save your dog from months or years of needless suffering.

Athena’s depression lasted about six weeks. We were starting to think that she might benefit from drugs. We did not want to rush into medication if she would soon come out of her depression, but we also did not want her to suffer any longer than she had to. If depression is as miserable for dogs as it is for humans, and I suspect it is, I wanted to use the best veterinary care available so that she could suffer as little as possible.

She happened to come out of her depression soon after we began to consider medication. She started playing with the new dog (tentatively) and had more energy and “spunk.” I think she found her place in the pack order and that relieved the anxiety and depression. We just had to be supportive until the new pack order developed. Now, our family (or pack) is a happy place for all.

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1 comment

  1. Dwight

    This is a wonderful site; I have learned a lot here, keep up the good work. Another place I learned from is a book that I purchased on Amazon. “I wana know what love is.” is the title. It is a Kindle book that teaches you everything anyone would want to know about how to train their pet from puppyhood on to adulthood. After reading this book, I was able to get control of my Yorkies and stop all their bad behavior. For example, to break your pet from jumping on you with his front feet, it’s best not to be a “No” person, which is negative. Teach your pet how to “sit”, this will give you control of your pet in a positive way. Once you teach your pet basic commands of sit, stay, lay down, come when called, and release, the rest is easy. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HKK22EA
    Best book I have ever read on the subject
    Cheers

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