It is well documented that humans can suffer from depression, but it is lesser known that depression can also occur in dogs (canines). The degree to which a dog can “feel” depressed is up for debate and hasn’t been studied as in-depth as in the human population. However, many dog owners have noticed times when their dog seems to appear depressed and isn’t acting like itself. Symptoms of depression in dogs can be similar to those observed in humans: low energy, decreased excitability, poor appetite, and they just may not behave how they normally have in the past – their zest for life has suddenly disappeared.
Dog Depression Symptoms & Signs
The classic signs of depression in dogs are pretty comparable to those experienced by humans. Dogs can have days of being in good moods and other days where they feel a little irritable and depressed just like humans. If your dog seems particularly low energy, slow, and doesn’t seem to want to interact, depression is a possibility. It is however, important not to jump to conclusions that your dog is experiencing “depression” and not some other medical condition that is causing it to feel depressed.
- Changes in behavior: Your dog may exhibit significant changes in behavior. It may act differently, become withdrawn, and seem as though it has lost all energy. It may not want to play, go for walks, and it may become irritable.
- Decreased excitability: If your dog used to be excited to do things such as: play, go on a walk, and used to be amped up for you to get home from work, and now it seems lifeless, this may be a sign of depression.
- Excessive sleeping: Does your dog sleep all the time? Although sleeping is common for dogs that are left at home all day while its owners are at work, continuing to sleep after they come home is abnormal. If it seems as though all your dog wants to do is sleep, this may be a sign of a bigger problem.
- Inactivity: One classic symptom of depression is inactivity. Your dog may want to just sit in its bed or a comfortable area in your home all day. It may become extremely inactive to the point that it may not want to go outside.
- Less energy: Your dog may have less energy to do things such as go on a walk and play fetch. It may also not walk around the house as much and seem like all it wants to do is sleep.
- Limp tail: If your dogs tail isn’t as perky as usual, this can reflect their mood. If the tail is constantly pointing downwards and you’d consider it “limp” this may be a result of their depression.
- Overeating: Although some dogs may not eat enough food, others may fall victim to overeating. This helps them mentally cope with feeling depressed so they may turn to food as a coping mechanism. When this occurs you will likely notice significant weight gain.
- Poor appetite: Some dogs may not be eating as much food as they normally would, while others may experience such a significant lack of appetite that they may not eat at all.
- Restlessness: Certain dogs may sleep more when depressed, but others may actually sleep less. Changes in sleeping patterns is a sign to keep in mind when thinking about whether your dog is depressed. If your dog used to sleep well at night and now it no longer sleeps, something may be wrong psychologically.
- Urination indoors: Instead of going to the door and barking to go outside, your dog may be too depressed to get itself to the door. Instead it may end up peeing and pooping inside as a result of feelings of depression. Obviously if your dog is well trained and this starts happening, something is up.
- Withdrawn: Your dog may stop interacting with you and/or other animal companions. It may keep to itself and stay away from the action. This is similar to social withdrawal in humans.
What causes depression in dogs?
Just like in humans, there are many factors that may lead to depression in dogs. Not all dogs experience depression as a result of a “chemical imbalance.” In fact, it is significantly more likely that there are other factors at play.
- Abuse: Has the animal been abused by its owner in the past? Many dogs that are abused end up displaying signs of distrust, aggression, and depression. This is because they were not raised in a safe, compassionate environment. This phenomenon occurs in humans as well with parents that neglect and/or abuse their kids growing up – it leads to psychological problems.
- Clinical Depression: If all other potential causes are successfully ruled out as being contributing factors to the dog’s depression, it may just be a chemical imbalance. If your dog has experienced depression for a long period of time and the etiology is unknown, this may be a case of clinical depression. In other words, your dog may need to take an antidepressant like Prozac as prescribed by a vet.
- Death: If one of the dog’s siblings or its owner passes away, the dog may become depressed. Dogs are capable of developing strong emotional bonds with their owners and those that are around them most. If you take away someone of importance to the dog (e.g. its original owner), it may be devastated.
- Depressed owner: If you yourself suffer from depression, it could be rubbing off on your dog. Most people with depression struggle to take care of themselves so taking care of a pet can be pretty difficult. Proper pet care requires a lot of energy and time, people that are depressed may not be taking proper care of their pets and this may lead to their dog feeling depressed.
- Environment: Things going on in the environment around your dog can make him feel depressed and/or nerved up. If you move to a new home or recently changed its home, it may experience some depression as a result of change. Even something as simple as a schedule change in which your dog doesn’t get as much attention as it once had may result in it feeling depressed.
- Loneliness: If your pet is at home alone nearly all day, 7 days a week, you probably shouldn’t be a pet owner in the first place. However, if you leave any dog in isolation long enough it is going to experience the sadness that accompanies loneliness.
- Medical Conditions: It is always important to consider that your dog may have an underlying medical condition that may be making it depressed or seem low energy. It is extremely important to take your dog into a quality veterinarian to get checked up before you assume that its depressed behavior is just the result of a chemical imbalance. Typically dogs experience depression as a result of medical conditions – this is the most common cause.
- Neglect: Pet neglect is a real concern these days. There are more people buying pets, but not people taking good care of them. If you simply don’t put in the necessary energy to train, take care of, and keep your dog happy, it is going to feel neglected and sad.
- Old age: Some dogs simply get more depressed when they age. They may be less active and interested in doing things. Part of this simply is that they just don’t have the same energy level as a young puppy, but other times it’s because they sense that their time is almost up. Read this for further information: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2249723/.
- Seasonal Changes: According to the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), changes in the seasons can have a major impact on the moods of our pets. For example, the summer months may allow pets to get more sunlight, run around outside more, and feel excitement in contrast to the winter months in which they may be cooped up inside most of the day. This phenomenon also occurs in humans that suffer from seasonal-affective disorder or depression in the winter months.
- Weather Changes: Some dogs can freak out when there are big storms on the horizon. If you have been getting a lot of bad weather and storms in your area recently and this is when your dog started to become depressed, this could be the cause of how they are feeling. Dogs are also very sensitive to the changes in pressure that accompany storms. Many times they can “sense” a storm coming.
Dog Depression Treatment Options
Before you diagnose your pet with depression, make sure that there isn’t something that you could do to help it without medication. At this point you should have worked with your veterinarian to rule out all other potential medical conditions that could be causing it to feel depressed. You should have also thought about whether simple things like environmental changes and/or weather changes may have been making your dog act withdrawn and depressed.
Keep in mind that treating your dog with an antidepressant should be a last resort – these are powerful drugs that may create powerful changes within their brains. Over time, they may become dependent on these drugs for functioning – in most cases, they don’t need pills to feel better, they just need some good care.
- Compassion: Be compassionate towards the way your dog is feeling. Give it some tender, loving care and show it compassion.
- Extra attention: Give your dog some extra attention and this could help improve its mood. This will be especially effective if you haven’t been spending as much time with your dog as usual.
- Feed it: Assuming your dog isn’t overeating, you may want to give it a treat every once and awhile such as some fresh meat.
- Play with it: Do something like play fetch with your dog. Try to get it fired up and take it outside or to a dog park. It will appreciate the fact that you are giving it love and attention.
- Socialization: If your dog lost one of its companions (e.g. brother or sister) that it typically played with, it may be grieving their loss. What might help is getting it out around other dogs at a dog park.
- Time: Something as simple as giving your dog more of your time can help it recover from depression. You may notice that the more time you spend with your pet, the happier it is to get some attention.
- Walk it: Do you exercise your dog enough? If not, this may be why your dog has become lazy and depressed. Dogs are not meant to sit around the house all day. Give your dog a chance to go for a walk and get some fresh air. Take it for walks every day and let it get some exercise.
Antidepressants for Dogs? SSRIs are a Last Resort
Antidepressants (SSRIs) are not some light drug to play around with or give your dog on a whim because you suspect they are depressed. Even if a veterinarian recommends that your dog try something like an antidepressant medication, you should only use it as a last resort option. Meaning, you should try to determine the cause of your pet’s depression and treat it with natural means. Something as simple as spending more time with your dog and giving it a little bit of extra attention can go a long way.
Antidepressants are not effective in all people, nor can you assume that they are effective in all dogs that take them. In fact, they may make your dog’s mood worse and since it is not capable of human communication, you will not know how it truly feels whilst medicated. I strongly advise against these medications simply because they do not always work for humans so we cannot assume that they are a miracle cure for dogs. Common antidepressants for dogs include: Clomicalm, Prozac, and Zoloft.
Why I wouldn’t give my dog an SSRI medication like Prozac
Even if your dog is depressed, there are a number of different things you can do to help it. SSRI medications typically take 4 to 8 weeks to work in humans. Additionally, these medications can make some people more depressed. We simply cannot assume that just because you give your dog Prozac that it is going to make it feel depressed – these medications could actually be making them feel worse even though you may not know it.
Although many pet owners are concerned for their dogs, how often do you walk your dog? Do you take care of it? Do you give it a little bit of extra attention? If so and your dog still seems depressed, then you may want to explore other options. However, just like in humans, all other behavioral options should be pursued before resorting to treatment with a powerful medication such as an SSRI.
Has your dog suffered from depression? Did you fix it?
It’s always helpful to hear from first-hand experiences with people who’s dogs have suffered from depression. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below. If your dog went through a rough time, how did you fix it? Were you able to successfully figure out the root of the problem and treat it without antidepressants?
Most people these days look for a quick fix for everything and are quick to give their dog pills instead of giving it proper care or trying to determine the root of the problem. Just because a veterinarian suggests that your dog may benefit from antidepressants does not mean it will target the root of the depression – many times it will simply mask it and will do nothing more than create dependency issues for your pet.