Depression in Dogs

As most pet lovers will attest, dogs do feel a range of emotions. They may not experience sadness quite the same as humans, but they can be anxious and depressed, says Dr. Carlo Siracusa at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in Do Dogs Feel Sadness? by Kate Hughes. 


The development of dogs' emotions is equivalent to that of a 2 1/2-year-old child, according to researchers. So the sadness they experience is less complex than that in human adults. For example, human adults can feel sad or depressed as a result of ruminating about their failures, imperfections or something they did or didn't do. Since dogs, like very young children, lack self-consciousness, they don't experience this type of sadness. Nonetheless, dogs can experience sadness or get depressed for a variety of other reasons.  


With COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in effect, many dogs enjoy spending more time with their families rather than being left alone. Still, the stress and depression many pet owners and families are experiencing may increase their dog’s risk for depression. Also sadly, some dogs will lose their beloved owners or family members during the outbreak. For some dogs, it may be temporary such as during their human’s hospitalization. Other dogs will experience permanent separation if coronavirus takes the life of a family member or because of financial hardship that forces the heartbreaking decision to give a dog away. 

So whether dogs are at risk of becoming ill with coronavirus or not, they are at increased risk for depression during this challenging time.


Staying Social 

Because dogs are social animals, a lack of attention or being left alone for long periods can impact their mental health. When dogs are confined to a crate or bathroom for extended hours, it can lead to depression. So allow your dog to spend as much time with family as possible. 


Similarly, a lack of exercise can also cause depression. This can be particularly problematic for pets that are crated or confined to small areas. While crate training for puppies is beneficial for housebreaking, they should never be crated for more than four hours at a time without an extended break.  Once your puppy is housebroken, a crate can provide a cozy spot for your dog with the crate left open. But dogs need companionship, exercise and stimulation, which they cannot experience in a crate. So as your dog grows, limit confinement and when it is necessary, preferably to a larger room.  


Also, find out how much and what types of exercise are appropriate for your dog's breed and age, and make sure your dog regularly gets the necessary exercise.


Dogs Feel Your Pain

Another cause of depression in dogs is when a family member is depressed. Recent studies have found that dogs recognize human emotions. In May 2012, a study was published in the Animal Cognition Journal that found that dogs responded more strongly when people were crying as opposed to talking or humming. The best remedy may be to get treatment for yourself or the depressed family member, which should alleviate your dog's sadness. 


Dogs also experience depression when they lose a family member, whether it's another pet or human companion. Sometimes dogs improve if a new pet is introduced, but not always. When a dog loses its human, this can be particularly devastating. An interesting 2013 study was reported by CBS News online, in "Study: Dogs bond with owners similar to babies with parents." Researchers observed that the "secure base effect" phenomenon that's experienced by babies also occurs in dogs. Like babies, dogs are more likely to interact with things and other people when they feel the secure presence of their caregivers. If your dog has lost a beloved family member or caregiver, those closest to your dog should intervene and provide extra love and attention. 


Another cause of depression in dogs is punishment. Animal behaviorists say that when dogs are repeatedly punished with shock collars or other physical means, they feel helpless. Not only can it cause aggression in dogs, but it can also cause dogs to withdraw. The best method for training dogs is with rewards for positive behavior. This is not only better for emotional health, but it's also more effective. 


Finally, certain medical conditions, such as thyroid problems, can cause depression. If your dog is depressed, and especially if there's no apparent reason for it, have your dog checked out by your veterinarian. 


Signs of Depression

The most common symptoms of dog depression are similar to those in humans. They include: 


  • sleeping more than usual
  • withdrawal or hiding
  • loss of interest in food
  • loss of interest in things the dog previously enjoyed, or inactivity
  • excessive licking, particularly of their paws
  • self-mutilation (in more severe cases, often related to separation anxiety) 


What to Do

If you suspect any of the reasons above is causing your dog's depression, try to remedy the situation that's causing it. This will often resolve your dog's sadness. But if your dog doesn't improve, an antidepressant can help, particularly in anxious dogs. Dogs are prescribed many of the same antidepressants as humans. But always talk with your veterinarian before giving one to your dog. 


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