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Can Dogs Get Depressed, and How Can You Help?

Yes, dogs can suffer from depression—or at least, from mental and emotional afflictions that greatly resemble clinical depression in humans. There’s no doubt that sometimes dogs feel sad, down, or upset—and that their low mood may cause them to withdraw from their normal activities and behave differently.

Fortunately, there are ways to care for the mental and emotional needs of our beloved pets, just like we care for their physical needs. Here are some important things to know about depression in dogs, and how to keep your favorite furkid feeling their best, inside and out…

Can Dogs Get Depressed?

Depression in dogs isn’t so well defined as it is in people. But dogs who are feeling “down” do appear to have symptoms similar to humans who are experiencing clinical depression.

Any dog owner who’s witnessed their pet’s different moods can probably relate to this. Sometimes dogs are exuberantly happy, while other times they may appear sad, frustrated, or withdrawn, depending on what’s happening in their life at that moment in time.

In dogs, symptoms of depression are usually more transient than they are in human depression. A dog’s depressive state may be triggered by a specific event or major life change. But in some cases, a dog may have chronic struggles with their mental or emotional health.

Potential Causes of Dog Depression

In dogs, depression is most commonly triggered by some sort of change in their life circumstances. Examples include:

  • Grief due to the loss of a human family member or another pet in the home.
  • Picking up on a pet owner’s feelings of sadness, grief, or depression.
  • Major changes in the home environment, such as moving to a new place, divorce, a new baby, a child going away to school, etc.
  • Major schedule changes, especially if they result in a dog getting much less time with their owner than they used to—such as a pet parent beginning a new work schedule.
  • Illness, pain, or other health conditions. 
  • Boredom or a lack of physical activity. Dogs need mental and physical stimulation to stay happy and healthy.
  • Seasonal affective disorder. Just like their human companions, dogs may become more lethargic and withdrawn during the winter months. This may be due to boredom and less time outside.
  • Anxieties and phobias, which can affect a dog’s mental health and wellbeing over the long-term if not addressed.
  • Previous traumatic experiences.

How Do I Know If My Dog Is Depressed? The Signs and Symptoms of Dog Depression

Depression can be very obvious, or it can be subtle. Some of the most common symptoms of dog depression include:

  • Acting withdrawn or disinterested—no longer doing activities they used to enjoy, like playtime with certain toys. 
  • Sleeping a lot, or a change in sleeping habits.
  • Lethargy or decreased energy.
  • Loss of appetite or a change in eating habits.
  • Compulsive behaviors, such as constantly licking their paws.
  • ANY change in behavior, which can range from clinginess, to aggression, to nervousness or anything in between. Pet owners may also notice a change in their dog’s body language.

Keep in mind that some dogs are naturally low energy and more reserved than others. So, if you have a calm, shy dog, that personality type might be perfectly normal for them and not a sign of depression at all.

On the other hand, for a dog who is normally active and suddenly becomes withdrawn and sleeps all day, that can be a sign of a problem.

The most important thing is to know what’s normal for your individual dog, and to consult your veterinarian if your dog is acting differently.

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Is My Dog Depressed Or Sick? Medical Conditions to Rule Out

If your dog is showing any of the above symptoms, or another symptom you're concerned about, it’s important to seek veterinary care right away.

That’s because illnesses, medical conditions, and pain can mimic the symptoms of depression.

In some dogs, health conditions (especially chronic ones) can even cause depression. And the root medical cause must be addressed in order to help the dog recover.

For example, a dog with arthritis or back pain may be reluctant to play or go on walks. And a dog with a stomach, liver, or kidney problem may experience lethargy and a loss of appetite.

By assuming these dogs are depressed, a pet parent would be inadvertently delaying important medical care. So, before treating depression, it’s crucial to rule out a medical cause of your pup’s symptoms.

When Should I Call the Vet?

For all the reasons mentioned above, it’s best to contact your vet as soon as you notice your dog has experienced a change in behavior.

In addition to the importance of ruling out a medical cause, early treatment is best for depression or any other mental health condition. While symptoms of depression usually don’t require an emergency visit (unless your pet is obviously ill), it’s best to seek care as soon as possible.

SEE ALSO: Why is My Dog Not Eating or Drinking?

What Can I Do to Help My Depressed Dog at Home?

Fortunately, many pups recover from depression with time, along with some TLC. Some of the best ways to help your pup include:

  • Stick to a routine as much as possible. This provides structure and a sense of security since they’ll know what to expect. If you must change your schedule, try to do so gradually.
  • Give your dog extra love, attention, and more of whatever they enjoy (playtime, treats, car rides, etc.) during difficult times, such as the loss of a fellow pet they were close to. Try to give attention while your dog is behaving normally (or at least showing some signs of perking up) rather than overdoing it while your dog is depressed. Otherwise, you could be unintentionally rewarding and reinforcing their depressive behaviors.
  • Provide adequate mental stimulation and physical exercise. The right type and amount of activity will vary from dog to dog. Examples include a new toy, a puzzle feeder, more walks, trips to the dog park, or even dog training (which can provide both learning and fun bonding time).
  • Address any anxiety or other mental/emotional conditions your dog may have, such as storm phobia or separation anxiety.
  • In some cases, adding another dog to the home can help. But for some pups, this will make their anxiety worse. Before proceeding, consider whether this is a good fit for your dog and family at this time

Every dog has different needs, interests, and physical capabilities, so try to find what works best for your individual pup. 

How Your Vet Can Help

The first step at the vet’s office will be to rule out any physical pain or underlying medical conditions.

This process begins with a full history (your vet will ask questions about your dog and any changes in their environment and routine) and a full physical examination of your pet. If indicated, your vet may recommend diagnostic tests, such as blood work, as a next step.

Once it’s determined that your dog has depression, your vet can guide you on additional changes to make at home, including behavior modification techniques to help a dog recover and develop confidence. 

Dogs with more severe symptoms may benefit from referral to a veterinary behaviorist or from prescription medications.

Many of the prescription antidepressant medications used for dogs are also used in humans. Fortunately, these medications are usually only needed in the short-term. Always check with your vet prior to giving your pet any medication or supplement, to be sure it’s safe for your unique pup.

Most dogs can get through their depression and get back to being their happy, tail-wagging selves. Sometimes, they just need a little help from their loving pet parent.

Worried your dog may be depressed—or, are you concerned about a new symptom they’re experiencing? Schedule a telehealth consultation today, or come see one of our kind and helpful vets for urgent care.

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