The term “depression” isn’t one we often hear in relation to dogs, or animals in general. At least, not in any serious sense. But can dogs get depressed? The short answer is, yes. Although they may not have the same capacity for reasoning as humans do, they are able to experience depression. It might not be as complex, but for a depressed dog it’s just as real, and it can cause a range of additional problems.
What is depression?
When it comes to depression, there are quite a few misunderstandings, out there. For starters, being depressed is so much more than just being sad. In fact, words that better describe this condition are ones like apathy, hopelessness, and lack of motivation, with sad added into the mix. It’s a very real disorder, one that can affect lives to a massive degree, whether it’s about work, personal relationships, or one’s own sense of fulfillment. It is not a mental illness that should be disregarded as something less serious than it is.
When it comes to dogs, however, the symptoms and effects tend to be a little more straightforward. A depressed dog will often appear lethargic, withdrawn, and sad. They may eat less, or stop eating entirely. A depressed dog may lose interest in play, drink less water, lose drastic amounts of weight ― depression often affects the physical body, regardless of species. If your dog is showing these signs, and there is no apparent physical cause (illness, etc.), you may be dealing with depression.
What causes a depressed dog?
With depression in humans, the path of treatment and wellbeing is often long, arduous, and winding. The good news is that treating a depressed dog is usually a lot less complicated. The first step, either way, is recognizing the problem. With that in mind, there are several possible reasons why your dog might be depressed.
The most common one is physical illness or discomfort. The first step in dealing with this is to have a veterinarian take a close look at your dog. Then, make sure to follow whatever treatment is prescribed if such an issue is found. If the vet rules out any kind of physical cause for your dog’s depressed behavior, it’s time to look at other possible, underlying causes.
Grief is a big one, here. We all know how deeply dogs can bond with their humans, as well as other animals, so it makes sense that they’d acutely feel the loss of one. Maybe a canine playmate died or moved away, maybe a child grew up and moved out. Maybe a family member started a new job and is away from home a lot. Or maybe there’s a new baby stealing attention, which is a type of loss. Such drastic changes that entail losing a loved one can definitely cause bouts of depression in dogs.
Another reason that may cause stress and depression is moving to a new place. The sudden, unexplained change of scenery and territory and smells can be jarring, and might lead to a depressed dog, at first. Usually, however, this gets better once the dog has settled in. Another possible reason is fear, or phobias. This may cause your dog stress, which in turn makes them retreat in order to avoid the perceived threat altogether, leading to a depressed dog.
Dogs are renowned for being attuned to the feelings and moods of their family, for better or worse. If you yourself are feeling depressed, your dog will likely pick up on this. Often, they’ll try to comfort you, but they can just as easily empathize to the point where they take on these feelings, themselves. This may lead to a depressed dog.
If you are mentally well, however, maybe there’s another reason your dog is unhappy. Are you away from home a lot? Do you take enough time to give your dog the attention, play, and stimulation they need? If something is lacking in what they get from you, your dog may become depressed.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that while there most often is a reason to be found for your dog’s depression, there sometimes just isn’t one. Sometimes, your dog will seem unhappy no matter what you do. And for someone who loves their dog dearly and wants to help, this can definitely create feelings of frustration and powerlessness.
How to help
As mentioned, the mental health of a dog isn’t quite as complex as that of a human. This means that there are usually clear steps one can take to help them get better.
First of all, it’s important to keep an eye on the signs. If your dog starts showing lack of interest or initiative regarding things they usually enjoy, it’s often a sign that something is up. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible, although, it may at times be easier said than done. A solid first attempt when it comes to lifting your dog’s spirits and wellbeing is to focus more on socializing, preferably with other dogs. Doggie daycare, playdates, and dog parks are all great options for this. During times of isolation, however, the lack of canine companionship might be harder to remedy. In that case ― if your life situation permits it ― perhaps consider getting another dog. Sometimes, as much as we love our dogs and they love us, human companionship alone just doesn’t quite cut it.
If getting another dog isn’t an option, or socializing and playing with other dogs seems ineffective or isn’t possible in the first place, there are still things left to try. A good idea is to simply give your dog more attention, though be careful not to coddle them too much. Comforting and cuddling may actually even encourage their depression and sad behavior, if focused on too heavily. Instead, try to spend more time with training, playing, and exercise. Even when stuck inside (or with a small yard, there are ways to activate your dog, in both body and mind.
Medication gets a bad rep, especially when it comes to mental health and various mental disorders. But as with humans, medication can sometimes be a cornerstone in helping your depressed dog get back on their feet, so to speak. While depression in dogs usually resolves on its own after a few weeks, depending on the cause, it can become longer-lasting. And this, in turn, can lead to serious, more physical health issues. If this is the case, talk to your veterinarian about medication options and further treatments. No matter what you choose, your dog will trust you to do what is best for them.