So what's the story behind dog depression? Well, once upon a time, dogs were born in the wild with no consciousness, no emotions, and no “soul.”
Dogs were mechanical beings who went through their daily routines robotically. They had no “divine spark,” as this was only granted to human beings.
As humans started domesticating dogs, they discovered that they could program them to perform specific tasks. But dogs still had no consciousness and weren’t able to feel emotions.
Sound like a fairy tale? That’s because it is.
But as strange as it seems to us, humans actually believed this at one time.
And then along came Darwin. He learned that dogs have the same neurology and chemistry that humans do.
We know, for example, that they produce hormones, just as we do.
One of those chemicals is at the heart of the human-canine relationship—the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin allows dogs and humans to feel affection and even love for each other.
So it made sense to Darwin that dogs can feel emotion just as we can, and we now know this to be true.
So why wouldn’t they experience depression?
Can Dogs Suffer from Depression?
So, we know that dogs have emotions. But does that mean they feel the same emotions that humans do? How do we know if they feel depression?
In the 1980s, a veterinarian named Nicholas Dodman decided to find out. He noticed that some dogs showed symptoms that were similar to the depressive symptoms that humans feel.
He experimented by giving these dogs antidepressants, and there were dramatic positive changes in their behavior.
Today, most veterinarians see similar human-like depressive symptoms in dogs. When they’ve ruled out other causes, they often conclude that depression is the only explanation.
So even though vets don’t know for sure if dogs can get depression (because they can’t tell us), certainty is growing that they can. Many (maybe even most) scientists now agree that dog depression is real.
What are the Symptoms of Dog Depression?
Now you may be asking, “How do I know if my dog has depression?”
That’s not always easy. In people, a doctor reaches a diagnosis of depression after carefully questioning the patient about their mood and whether they are enjoying life.
Since we can’t do this with dogs, we have to rely on their behavior. Like people, dogs will show symptoms when they’re feeling down. We just need to know what to look for.
And you are the best person to judge if something seems to be wrong with your dog. Unless she’s joined your family very recently, you know what normal behavior is for her.
Here are some specific things to watch for:
- Loss of appetite, especially in a highly food-motivated dog.
- Though it's less common, other dogs may eat more to soothe themselves.
- Sleeping more often.
- Lack of interest in her usual activities, including play and exercise.
- Decreased interaction with family members or even hiding. Like humans, a depressed dog will often prefer to be alone.
- Paw licking. Dogs will often lick and even chew on their paws as a self-soothing technique.
Unfortunately, all of these symptoms can also be signs of a health issue.
For that reason, the first step in evaluating your dog for depression is a complete health check with your vet.
Once a medical issue has been ruled out, the next step is to figure out what has changed in your dog’s environment that could be causing his depressive symptoms.
What Causes Dog Depression?
Like humans, dogs have individual temperaments. Three different dogs will react in three different ways to a significant life event.
In general, though, there are common triggers that are known to be stressful for dogs. If your dog is sad and has recently been through any of the events on this list, chances are good that he is depressed and that you’ve found the culprit.
Events that are stressful for dogs include:
- The death of a companion (human or another pet he’s bonded with).
- A new family member, like a baby or a new spouse (and having to share your attention).
- A cherished family member leaving home (to go to college, for example, or because of divorce).
- A new pet.
- A change in your schedule or routine.
- Being kenneled, as for a vacation.
- A sudden change in the amount of time he spends alone in the house.
- A change in the attention he usually gets from you.
Many of these stressors will cause only a temporary depression for your dog. If you add a new pet to the family, for example, your dog may have jealousy issues for a while. But in most cases, she will adjust to the new family dynamics.
Other stressors, though, like the death of a previous owner or canine (or even feline) “brother” or “sister” can cause a more severe reaction.
A depressive response to events like these is normal. Expect it to take some time to improve.
Our Own Stressors
Another possible reason for depression in dogs is one that you may not have thought of. Your dog could be reacting to a change in your mood or temperament.
Most people would agree that dogs can have an almost uncanny ability to sense our emotions. And they would be correct.
A study done in 2016 by the University of Lincoln, UK, and the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, found that dogs can accurately read their humans’ emotions by the combination of the humans’ voices and facial expressions.
We often don’t realize how emotional struggles affect our outward actions and body language. But our sensitive dogs do.
They can, and do, take emotional cues from us.
So, if you have had a recent loss or depressive episode of your own that’s affecting your mood, it’s probably affecting your dog as well.
How Long Does Dog Depression Last?
Dog depression can last anywhere from days to months. In any of these stressful situations, a certain period of depression in your dog is a normal response.
But according to veterinarian John Cirabassi, DVM, long-term depression is rare in dogs. If it lasts more than a month or two, you may need to ask for help.
Is There a Connection Between Dog Depression and Anxiety?
Just as with humans, dog depression often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety. Any of the stressors we mentioned above can create a state of anxiety in your dog.
There are situations where treating the anxiety may help the depression to resolve itself.
For example, if he has suffered the loss of a previous owner or a dog he had strongly bonded with, he is probably feeling confused, not understanding what happened or if he will ever see that companion again.
Some dog behaviorists believe that some dogs never stop looking for that lost friend. That sense of confusion can undoubtedly lead to anxiety in a dog.
As another example, you may have recently started a new job and your dog now finds herself alone more than usual. What you see as depression could be separation anxiety.
The symptoms of depression are usually more subtle than anxiety symptoms. But there a few signs of anxiety that may break through the depression. An anxious dog might pace, shake, or pant. She may yawn a lot, whine, or even howl.
Some dogs will shed, or “blow their coat” at unnatural times.
These are all signs that there is an underlying stressor that is causing your dog to be anxious as well as depressed. If this is the case and your dog doesn't seem to get better within a couple of months, your vet may suggest a dog behavioralist or anxiety medications.
(Please see below for more information about medicating dogs.)
What Can I Do to Help with My Dog’s Depression?
Once you think you’ve identified the issue at the heart of your dog’s depression, there is a lot you can do to help her through it.
The idea is to reestablish a tight bond with your dog so that she feels secure again. Time, reassurance, and extra TLC from you will usually work best.
But sometimes a little jumpstart can help until your dog gets his happiness habit back. The following are a few things you can try.
Getting your dog moving may be the most important thing you can do. But a depressed dog probably won’t have much interest in exercise, so you may have to lead the way.
Try to combine exercise with activities that will engage his mind.
For example, if he usually loves walks, try taking him on different routes where he will have new sights and sniffs to investigate.
Be conscious, though, of areas that may increase your dog’s stress. Crowds of people or a dog park may be too much for a depressed or anxious dog. Try a quiet route.
Coax with Fun Treats
At first, you may need to coax your dog out the door for that walk. Use her favorite treat—one that she doesn't get very often—to encourage her to come out for a walk or to play a game with you.
Diced chicken, hot dogs, cheese, or semi-dried liver are popular choices. One of them is sure to appeal to your dog.
Find Mentally Stimulating Activities
What does your dog ordinarily like to do? Use that to plan activities that are likely to distract her. Does she love to chase a ball? Get her outside and try to engage her in a game of fetch or frisbee.
Does she enjoy interactive toys? Or playing tug of war? Try a new toy that she hasn’t seen before.
We all know how dogs like to have their bellies rubbed or their hind ends scratched. Imagine how much more they would enjoy a full-body massage. Classes that teach canine massage are widely available. Or you can learn about it online.
Massage would serve two purposes: easing any feelings of stress your dog may have while at the same time strengthening his bond with you.
If your dog enjoys grooming, even a gentle brushing could be a mood lifter for him.
Stimulate a Good Mood
Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) products such as a diffuser or collar can make your dog feel more relaxed and make him feel better.
Maintain a Routine
Try to keep changes in routine to a minimum during stressful times. For example, if your dog appears depressed because of a recent move, do your best to keep his meal and exercise times as close to possible to his pre-move schedule.
Most dogs are creatures of habit, and sudden changes in their routines can be cause for anxiety and depression. Familiar routines and structure are reassuring.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) recently did a study with kenneled dogs to find out if the music was as soothing to dogs as it is to humans. Their conclusion?
Yes! The dogs in the study were found to show more relaxed behavior, to have more controlled heart rates, and to bark less.
They were also found to have lower levels of stress hormones.
It turns out that dogs react positively to a mixture of genres of music. Their favorites? Reggae and soft rock.
So try playing a little Bob Marley in the background with that next game of fetch. You may find that you’re ready to call it quits before your dog is!
It may also be helpful to play music at soft volume in the areas where your dog sleeps or spends his time, especially during times when no one is home.
Add New Activities and Reward Good Behavior
Depressive symptoms can sometimes last for quite a while. A good longer-term strategy can make sense.
Consider taking your dog out to structured activities that their specific breed is likely to enjoy. For a Labrador Retriever, it might be dock diving. Earthdog may bring a Dachshund or a Skye Terrier out of its shell. An Australian Shepherd may enjoy herding trials.
Even training for activities like these will be great exercise and good bonding time with you. Be sure to reward him well for participating.
Avoid Reinforcing Negative Behavior
This one can be hard, but don't inadvertently reward your dog for having a blue mood. If you give her positive attention by cuddling and petting her when she’s sad, it can reinforce her depressed behavior.
Instead, talk to her normally and reward and interact with her when she is not acting depressed.
Add Another Dog Companion
If your depressed dog is grieving for a lost companion, you may find he'll respond well to the company of a new canine playmate.
You may want to foster a dog for a local animal rescue group first. If it works out, you can then adopt him. If your dog doesn't take to his new companion, the rescue group will be able to find the foster a new placement.
If you consider trying this, be sure that all family members are on board with a new pet. Otherwise, you may create more problems than you resolve.
We’ve already established that exercise is one of the keys to helping your dog through a depressive episode. For some dogs, however, exercise is more critical than for others.
Andrea Partee of Dogs Naturally lists two causes of dog depression that are directly related to insufficient exercise: boredom and loss of purpose.
Exercise is usually the cure for both of these long-term sources of depression for a dog.
Many people don't think about energy level when they choose the breed they want. Or life changes create a situation where the dog is no longer happy.
Let's say your family is a sedentary one, and you adopt a German Shepherd, a dog that needs an active life. If that dog doesn't get the exercise it needs, he'll likely become bored and eventually start showing signs of depression.
The same can happen when a dog is used to getting a lot of exercise, and her family situation suddenly changes.
Maybe the family member who took her on long jogs or hikes moved out of the home. Or a family member's work schedule changed, and that person no longer has time to spend exercising the dog.
Lack of Purpose
Lack of purpose can also contribute to a dog’s boredom and depression, especially in the working or sporting breeds. Many of these dogs need a job to be happy.
It doesn’t have to be the job it was historically bred to do. But it should be in some way related to the instinctive behaviors that have naturally evolved in that breed.
A dog’s play can also be its work. For example, Border Collies are less likely to herd livestock than they used to be. But these dogs love to run and to work with humans. They excel at canine sports such as agility or herding trials.
Without a purpose, a high-energy dog will be at greater risk for depression.
If all else fails, and the depression lasts beyond a month or two and shows no signs of improving, medication can be a reasonable addition to a recovery program.
Talk to your vet about using short-term medication to lift your dog's mood. It could help get her started on the road to emotional recovery.
But keep in mind that antidepressants generally take about 6 to 8 weeks to show an effect. Because of this, it makes no sense to treat depression that is probably due to a stressful event.
Most dog behaviorists and vets believe that exercise and the methods discussed above are all that a dog needs to get past a depressive episode.
Some will prescribe an antidepressant—like Prozac, Paxil, or Zoloft—for extreme cases.
But drugs are not a long-term solution.
The use of antidepressants in dogs isn't well studied yet. And it’s important to keep in mind that these drugs have side effects. Our dogs can’t tell us when they’re suffering from stomach pain or insomnia.
You should plan to take your dog off the medication as soon as your vet feels he no longer needs it.
Are There Ways to Treat Dog Depression Naturally?
Yes. There are natural depression remedies marketed for dogs. If you would prefer not to use drugs to treat your dog’s depression, ask your vet about natural remedies.
She may recommend herbal remedies or supplements that may help. Or she might refer you to a naturopathic vet.
Whichever form of dog depression therapy you choose, it's essential that you use it in combination with the suggestions given above.
Be Your Dog’s Hero
Dog depression is real. But your dog can’t tell you what’s bothering her. She is relying on you to figure it out.
If you are seeing any signs that your dog is having a tough time dealing with a stressful event in her life, don’t wait. Try some of the suggestions listed above.
If she’s not responding to your best efforts, have a chat with your veterinarian.
Above all, be patient. With time and a little help from her favorite person, your dog can beat that depression and go on to live happily ever after.
And that’s no fairy tale.