Mental problems

Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms

María Besteiros
By María Besteiros, Expert veterinary assistant and canine/feline hairdresser.. Updated: March 31, 2019
Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms

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If you wonder whether a dog can get depressed, it might be because your own dog seems sad and tired. They might not have the same liveliness of their usual selves or there is some other change in their demeanor. The truth is that dogs can get depressed, but not necessarily in the same way as humans. It is often a response to certain circumstances or changes in their routine. Veterinary psychologists are still debating the extent of depression in dogs, but that they are subject to mood changes is undeniable.

While we know dogs can get depression, AnimalWised explains a little further what to what extent this may be experienced. We also look at some of the causes, symptoms and treatment for canine depression to help you if your dog seems to be feeling down.

You may also be interested in: My Cat is Depressed
  1. How to know if my dog is depressed
  2. Causes of depression in dogs
  3. Depression in older dogs
  4. How to treat depression in dogs
  5. How to encourage a depressed dog

How to know if my dog is depressed

In human beings clinical depression is often difficult to trace. Psychoanalysis, mental health counselling and many other forms of psychological assessment are implemented to try to get to the root of mental health problems. With dogs, we cannot communicate in the same way. We need to look contextually at the dog's circumstance when they look sad or depressed to determine what might be the case.

Another important aspect to consider is the emotional capability of dogs. Some tend to humanize their dogs to the point they can feel all the emotions we can, others see them as simple animals without any real emotional capacity. The likely truth is somewhere between the two.

A discussion on the subject of canine emotional capability was conducted by the Universities of Helsinki and Aalto in Finland and published in the journal Animal Science. The discussion involved a wide range of opinions, but the important conclusion is that we are yet unable to provide a definitive answer as to the extent of a dog's mental faculties. It states that “we cannot yet fully distinguish the effect of [evolution and experience] on dog emotions”[1]. This means we don't know if dogs are able to learn certain emotional traits or if they are evolving better capabilities over time.

What we can say is that there are certain reasons why a dog's demeanor might change and make them appear sad. Before we look at those, we should look at some of the symptoms of depression in dogs to know what to look out for. They include:

  • Reduction in activity
  • Decreased interaction with people and other animals
  • Loss of interest in their environment
  • Alterations in appetite, whether they stop eating or eat compulsively
  • Prostration, lethargy and apathy
  • Sleeping more or less often
  • Vocalizations such as groaning, weeping or howling without apparent reason
  • Searching for quiet places to hide
  • Decrease in affection
  • Behavioral changes
  • Absence of play behavior
  • Slow movements
  • Possible incontinence
  • Stereotypies, i.e. the appearance of repetitive or compulsive behavior such as licking or nibbling parts of their body
  • Anxiousness
  • Aggression

There are two main types of depression and they are classified as endogenous and exogenous. This means their cause is either internal or external, respectively. Some breeds may appear to have genetic predispositions toward certain mental health issues. One report in The International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine claims a possible link between a certain genome and canine compulsive disorder[2]. These would be endogenous causes, but the research is limited. While it is not conclusive either, exogenous causes from a dog's environment seem to be a little better understood.

Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms - How to know if my dog is depressed

Causes of depression in dogs

In general, dogs usually suffer from depression when a significant change in their lives takes place. It usually occurs when this change alters their normal routine. If you see your dog with some of the above symptoms, you may ask yourself is my dog depressed or sick? It's an important question as many of these symptoms are concurrent with physical pathologies. It is important you take your dog to the veterinarian to rule out a physical problem before you consider other causes of depression.

If your dog seems sad and tired, but is otherwise physically fine, they may be experiencing:

  • The death of a loved one: while the extent to which they can grieve is yet to be determined, dogs have been seen to noticeably change after the death of another animal or their human guardian. Losing a playmate, friend or family member can be a devastating blow to a dog. The famous story of Hachiko highlights the emotional results of the loss of a loved one.
  • Change of home or family: when dogs undergo a radical change in their lives, they tend to show a period of adaptation. During this process, it is normal that they may appear shy, unsocial or even sad.
  • Excessive loneliness: separation anxiety in dogs is a common problem of dogs which spend too much time alone. Separation anxiety in dogs usually leads to destructive behavior or excessive barking and it is very important to address this problem accordingly.
  • An unpleasant situation: a situation that has been very unpleasant for your dog can cause your dog to feel both sad and apathetic. This may be a perceived trauma, scolding by their guardian or a near accident.
  • A dogfight: if your dog has been involved in a fight, it is very likely their behavior may change. Some dogs tend to become more reactive after dog fights, while others become scared. Proper socialization is very important in reducing fighting behavior.
  • Break of family nucleus: if someone has left home recently (either person or pet) your dog may suffer from depression due to the ‘loss’’ of that loved one. They will not be able to understand the valid reasons for their absence.
  • The arrival of a baby: if we have not been able to prepare our dog for the arrival of a baby at home, our dog may become sad and/or jealous. This attitude cannot be ignored and is imperative it is addressed for the safety of both dog and baby.
  • A new pet: as with the arrival of a baby, a dog can become jealous if you have decided to adopt a new pet. We must remember that it is important to pay attention to the oldest member of the household. It is very important to avoid jealousy and aggressive attitudes that may result from a lack of attention.
  • Diseases: as stated above, disease can can be the cause of sadness and apathy. A veterinarian will be able to detect whether your dog’s sadness is originating from physiological problems.
  • Pseudopregnancy: pseudopregnancy in dogs is a problem that can affect bitches that are not sterilized. They feel as if they are pregnant due to hormonal changes in the body. Otherwise known as a phantom pregnancy, it may have serious consequences for a female dog’s physical and mental health.
  • Anxiety and stress: a dog suffering from stress and anxiety can also easily appear sad and apathetic. For more, take a look at our article on 10 signs that your dog is stressed.

As you may have noticed, the causes of sadness in dogs are diverse. The most important thing in this case is to identify the reason for your dog’s sadness and how to treat the specific situation accordingly. We also need to be aware that our interpretation is important. If you have a pet with a ‘hangdog’ expression, this may be normal and not a cause for concern. This is one reason it is important to not overly-humanize our dogs and ascribe a problem which doesn't exist.

Depression in older dogs

Depressive symptomatology in elderly dogs can be attributed to something known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome. It is a process in brain alteration which can result in behavioral alterations such as “disorientation, deterioration of social-environmental interaction, changes of the sleep-wake cycle, house soiling, impairment of house training and changes of activity”[3]. All of these can be apparent symptoms of depression, although the clinical picture seems to more closely correlate to Alzheimer's disease in humans.

This clinical picture can also correspond to certain pathologies such as kidney disease. This is one of the reasons we should stress how important it is to take your dog to the vet if you see these symptoms present. If cognitive dysfunction is confirmed, the vet will implement measures to try to moderate their behavior, if applicable. The dog's environment may need to be adapted to their new circumstances. Always ensure you have the right advice and feel free to contact a canine ethologist for additional support. Medication may also be prescribed.

Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms - Depression in older dogs

How to treat depression in dogs

As we have said previously, any sign of the aforementioned symptoms is reason enough for veterinary consultation. If we have ruled out a physical problem and we believe depression is the cause of behavioral changes, then it is important we find the trigger. We can then implement our depression treatment based on this root cause. We will provide some practical ways we might be able to do this in the next section, but we start with some questions you may want to ask about your dog.

These questions are designed to review key factors about your dog's health and happiness. We encourage you to ask:

  • Do you feed your dog quality food?
  • How many times do you walk your dog?
  • Do you use positive reinforcement?
  • Do you exercise your dog regularly?
  • Do you provide your dog with enough love and attention?

For more information on improving your dog's quality of life, you can take a look at our article on how to make dogs live longer.

How to encourage a depressed dog

Whatever the cause of our dog's depression, there are practical things you can do to help them. The following measures may be employed to help them regain their spirit:

  • The most important thing is that we dedicate time every day to spend with them exclusively. Dogs are pack animals and, as a member of your family, need to feel integrated into the group.
  • They need exercise appropriate for their age and energy levels. We need to walk them more than just taking them out to urinate or defecate.
  • Intelligence games and education are imperative for proper brain development. This will not only help keep them happy, but reduce the chances of developing brain disorders which may lead to depression.
  • Don't make big decisions, such as bringing a new dog into the home, lightly. You should assess your dog's state of well-being and ensure you consider their ability to socialize. You may even want to have them assessed by a canine behaviorist to see how well they get on with others.
  • Do not leave the dog alone for hours at a time. If you are unable to spend sufficient time with them, ask a neighbor or family member to check in on them. Not doing so can lead to separation anxiety.
  • Avoid stressful situations such as playing loud music or shouting in the home which may perpetuate the depression.
  • Finally, sterilization may cause some mild trauma in the short term, but it will be better for their well-being in the long run.

If you fear your dog is depressed, you will need to take them to the veterinarian. We may not always be able to determine the root cause of their issues, but we can address the symptoms with the help of a veterinary medical professional.

Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms - How to encourage a depressed dog

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms, we recommend you visit our Mental problems category.

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Can Dogs Get Depressed? - Possible Causes and Symptoms