By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
There’s no doubt about it: dogs can be mopey. Whether the problem is a parent leaving for work or the loss of a companion, we know that pets, and dogs in particular, can exhibit behavioral changes consistent with depression. But does it compare to the clinical depression exhibited by people?
The answer is: no one knows for sure. It is important to differentiate depressed behavior from an actual diagnosis of clinical depression. Even in people, with the ability to explain what they are experiencing and a long archive of data exploring the physical aspects of depression, depression as a medical diagnosis is still poorly understood and no biological test exists to reliably diagnose major depression. When it comes to our canine companions, we are limited to our observations of behavior in order to determine what’s going on, and that is notoriously tricky.
Dog Depression Vs. Human Depression: How Does it Compare?
In humans, clinical depression is divided into a variety of subtypes such as situational depression, where a person is responding to an event in their lives, and general depression, which may or may not have a correlation to an outside cause. People suffering from generalized depression often share that their symptoms may occur even when nothing “wrong” is happening in their lives. Diagnosis involves speaking with the patient and getting an involved history. Because depression in this regard refers to a state of mind as perceived by the patient, diagnosing clinical depression in dogs would be a real challenge.
Generally speaking, when we speak of a depressed dog we are referring to a dog who is exhibiting a change in behavior that manifests as decreased interest in normal activities or a change in interaction with his family. Walks are no longer the bounce-inducing activity of the day, food doesn’t look that good, the arrival of their favorite person warrants no more than a mild eyebrow raise.
Depression in Dogs: Making a Diagnosis
The problem in dogs, and this is consistent across the board when it comes to behavioral changes, is that many of these symptoms can be explained by a medical condition. An arthritic senior will be less interested in walks, not because they aren’t fun, but because they hurt. A dog with kidney disease will be less interested in food, not because it no longer smells good, but because they experience nausea whenever they eat.
For this reason, it’s important that the veterinarian be your first stop whenever your pet exhibits a change in behavior that is consistent with depression. Some of the common symptoms that are often correlated to a medical condition are the following:
- Decreased appetite
- Regression in housetraining/increased accidents in the house
- Sleeping more hours than usual
- Lack of interest in exercise
- Sudden onset of aggression
- Acting disoriented or lost at home
That being said, dogs are truly sensitive to those around them and can respond dramatically to upsetting changes in their lives. When major life changes occur such as moving, divorce or breakup, or the death of another pet in the house, it is not uncommon for dogs to have an observable period of depression. Even minor changes that you might not pay much attention to as a pet parent can affect a dog dramatically. Things like rearranging furniture, introducing a new cat to the home, or a change in an owner’s work schedule can change the routine enough to throw a dog off-guard and cause some signs of depression.
How to Treat Depression in Dogs
In these situations, when the dog has an otherwise clean bill of health and we suspect he or she is reacting to an external stressor, most dogs respond to a tincture of time and some steady reassurance. Extra attention, walks, and grooming time can help reassert your close bond and help your pet recover from stress. Try to minimize changes in routine during transitional periods and give them lots of whatever it is that makes them happy—playtime, hikes, or even just cuddles.
In severe cases, your veterinarian may recommend a medication such as Prozac to help a pet through an especially rough transition, but this is usually reserved for extreme situations. The use of antidepressants in dogs is not as well studied as it is in humans, and most veterinarians and behaviorists find they are able to work through a depressive state through other means.
No matter the underlying cause, changes in behavior are worth investigating. Whatever we can do to ease our pet’s stress and depression is more than worth the effort.
Image: Miroslava Levina via Shutterstock