Yes, dogs can get depressed. Whether or not it’s the same as what humans experience, we may never know since we can’t ask a dog. But there are signs and symptoms from a dog’s behavior that reveal when a dog is in the doldrums. If you’ve noticed a sudden change in your four-legged friend’s behavior and are worried, you may need to see if the change is a clue that your dog needs some psychological TLC.
Common triggers for dog depression
Dogs are creatures of habit, activity and loyalty. A sudden change that affects their world can cause a dog to have a spat of depression. Triggers include:
- The addition of a new person or pet to the family
- A sudden drop in attention from an owner or family members
- A sudden change in the household schedule
- The loss of an owner or companion
- Moving to a new home
- A traumatic injury
Dogs may also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, during the winter months. Stanley Coren reports in Psychology Today: “Do dogs suffer from SAD? Some data comes from a survey conducted by a leading veterinary charity in the UK. PDSA (The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) found that approximately 40 percent of dog owners saw a considerable downturn in their pet's moods during the winter months. In addition, half of the dog owners felt that their dogs slept longer, with around two in five reporting their pets to be less active overall."
Some dogs may suffer depression simply for not having a job to do. The Guardian notes:
“In the not too distant past, dogs mostly had to work for a living and were probably very often physically and mentally fatigued at the end of the day – which is why we have the expression 'dog-tired'. Could the stress of being made redundant be the source of this apparent unhappiness? Dog behaviourist Penel Malby told me: 'Dogs live very differently to the way they used to. Lots more dogs, lots more people, lots more stress for everyone, I think. If you think back even just 50 years, dogs were allowed to roam free every day, socialise with their neighbourhood friends. Now they either go out with a dog walker or go out for an hour if they’re lucky, and the rest of the time is spent at home.'"
The upside is that canine depression usually isn't permanent, or even necessarily long-lived, and there are ways to combat it to help your dog get back to normal in due time.
What are the warning signs?
The most common symptoms dogs display when they’re depressed mirror those that humans experience during a depression. They include:
- Sleeping much more than usual
- A change in eating habits, including a loss or gain in appetite and in weight
- A refusal to drink water
- A lack of interest in usual energetic activities like going for walks or playing
- Excessive licking of their paws
- Excessive shedding
- Become withdrawn or hiding in the house
- Suddenly showing signs of aggression or anxiety
Unfortunately, these symptoms also occur with a range of other medical issues. A dog might have a change in appetite because of a thyroid or kidney issue, or the dog might not want to go on a walk because of joint pain or arthritis flaring up. So if you notice any changes in your dog's behavior, the first thing to do is visit the vet to rule out any serious health-related issues before assuming it comes down to depression.
How to help your dog out of a depression
If you have determined your dog is feeling depressed, there are many things you can do to help them pull out of it.
- Take your dog on more frequent walks during the day to favorite places, allowing them to sniff around and enjoy the scenery. It’s also helpful to do this first thing in the morning to start the day out with a bit of fresh air and energy.
- Try to keep a schedule as much as possible. Dogs are creatures of habit and having a predictable routine can be an enormous source of comfort for a stressed or depressed dog, especially if the trigger for the depression was a sudden change in routine.
- Reward your dog when he shows signs of improved mood or energy. Rather than babying the dog during the down times — which reinforces that behavior — reward him with extra special treats or a favorite toy when he shows a bit of enthusiasm about life to amplify the mood even more.
- Bring home a new toy, such as a squeaker or puzzle toy that stimulates the senses and encourages play.
- If the cause of depression is the loss of a companion, like another household pet, consider adopting another dog that can be a companion. However, only do this if you’ve seriously considered the needs of your household and your depressed dog. It isn’t an option to be taken lightly.
As a last resort, medication could be an option. There are antidepressants for dogs that you can discuss with your veterinarian. However, catching depression early on and trying for behavioral changes first is the best solution. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, notes in a WebMD article, “[I]t can take up to two months for drugs to become effective. But unlike people, who often remain on antidepressants for years, most dogs can get better in six to 12 months and then be taken off the drugs.”
And finally, give it time. As Wag Walking notes, “Be Patient: Sometimes — especially if the issue was a loss of a companion or master — the only thing that will heal a dog’s heart is time. It may be as few as a couple days or as much as a few months, but most dogs will be able to pull themselves out of depression with a little time and understanding.”