Dog Depression: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments
THC Editorial Team August 12, 2021
- What Is Dog Depression?
- Dog Depression Symptoms
- Causes of Dog Depression
- Treatments for Canine Depression
- Summary/Key Takeaways
What Is Dog Depression?
Mood disorders, such as depression, are not limited to humans.1 In many ways, our animal companions experience depression just like we do. Dogs with depression can exhibit similar symptoms to humans with depression, such as losing interest in previously favored activities or a change in appetite.2,3 Learning more about canine depression may enable you to help your pet receive effective treatment if necessary.
Dog Depression Symptoms
Noticing your canine’s behavior is the first step to evaluating whether or not it is distressed. There are many signs of dog depression, including:2
- Appetite changes. One of the first signs of dog depression is a marked change in appetite. Some pets eat less and may lose weight. Others eat more, which may lead to weight gain. If you notice that your dog has stopped eating or has an extreme weight change over a short period, they may be experiencing depression.
- Sleeping all the time. Although some dogs are naturally inclined to long periods of rest, too much sleep may indicate your dog is depressed. Changes in sleeping habits—from routine napping to excessive napping—may indicate depression.2
- General loss of interest. General loss of interest in everyday activities may also indicate depression. If your pet is depressed, it may suddenly lose interest in favorite toys, treats, food, car rides, cuddles, and other previously enjoyed activities or objects.2
- Excessive licking. Often, dogs lick themselves on their paws or elsewhere to soothe their emotions.2 If you notice a significant increase in your pet’s usual licking habits, this action could indicate that your dog is distressed or unhappy.4
- Avoidance and hiding. Dogs that suddenly avoid household members or hide under beds, sofas, and tables may be experiencing the beginnings of chronic stress or pet depression.
Causes of Dog Depression
A dog’s mood is affected by many factors. Each should be considered when evaluating your animal’s behavior to assess whether it might be experiencing depression.
According to dog behaviorist Nick Jones, dogs may become sad or anxious when their environment or living circumstances suddenly change. This extends to changes the pet may see as unfavorable, like a stay in a kennel or the adoption of a new dog, or another pet, as well as changes that appear benign, like an owner’s new job or altered work schedule.4
In a highly distressing event, some animals experience depression and grief. For instance, a dog may experience distress when a household member moves away permanently or when new household members arrive.4 Similarly, a canine living with children may experience depression once summer ends and the children return to school. Such events could trigger separation anxiety and loneliness as well.
In addition, when a household incorporates new members, such as babies or other pets, dogs may feel excluded if the new member receives more attention. It’s essential to introduce your dog to any new family member (human or animal) to ensure everyone gets along.
Changes to an Animal’s Social Group
Dogs are most likely to become depressed due to a significant change in their social group. Dogs often have an emotional bond with the other pets they live with, especially if they all get along.5 This is also true for other animals outside the household that they see and play with regularly. When dogs lose such connections, they experience grief, which may result in depression.5 Getting them a new friend can provide them with novelty, keep them interested in playtime, and build new connections.
Boredom may also lead to sadness and depression in dogs. If a dog is bored, it may become destructive.6 Not all bored pups are depressed—a depressed dog will likely exhibit boredom alongside other symptoms.
To tackle canine boredom, owners should engage dogs with enrichment toys to keep them occupied, such as Kongs. For most dogs, canine enrichment improves the bond between them and their owners and reduces the dog’s stress.5
Fears and Phobias
The depressed mood of your dog could be the result of a fear or phobia.7 Common fears dogs have include loud noises and separation from their owner or family members. It is not uncommon for dogs to show fear in unexpected ways, including but not limited to lip licking, yawning, flattened ears, pacing, destroying household objects, and panting.8 Unfortunately, a dog’s depression may not show up in obvious ways at all; instead, the dog may experience constant anxiety, waiting for the following fear-inducing incident, such as a nearby firework display or a full day left alone.7 As a result, the dog may become withdrawn to protect itself.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a condition in which someone experiences a depressive episode during a particular season, most commonly winter, that does not persist throughout the year.9 Dogs may experience a version of this disorder in the wintertime when some of their favorite activities become more difficult.
It can be challenging to give dogs the appropriate amount of exercise during the winter months, especially given the long, wet winters common in many regions. In the dark hours of the morning and evening, as well as when it is muddy and wet, taking your dog for a walk may seem cumbersome. Due to these situations, some pets get fewer walks or less exercise than usual and aren’t getting to do what they genuinely enjoy.
Not engaging in the types of activities that will reduce their stress levels and bring them joy can lead to seasonal affective disorders.7
Poor Training Methods
There are two broad categories of dog training: punishment-based training and reward-based training. A 2019 study conducted by researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal examined how these training methods could affect and potentially cause depression in dogs.
The punishment-based methods used by researchers included positive punishment, which doled out an unpleasant stimulus—like a leash jerk or yelling when the dog did not behave in the desired manner—and negative punishment, which removed a pleasant incentive when the dog did not behave—like turning away from the dog when it barked inappropriately.
On the other hand, the reward-based training methods included negative reinforcement by applying an unpleasant stimulus until the dog performed the desired action and then relieving it—like pulling the collar upward and releasing when the dog laid down—and positive reinforcement by rewarding the dog with a positive stimulus—like a treat or praise after completing the desired action.
The researchers found that dogs that were involved in punishment-based training programs showed more stress-related symptoms. They had higher cortisol levels in their saliva while in training than dogs in reward-based training and exhibited various signs of anxiety and depression.10
Physical Illness or Pain
Painful physical conditions in dogs, such as an injury or fatigue, may also lead to psychological distress.7
To identify whether a dog is in pain, or suffering, pet owners should note any sudden changes in the dog’s personality or behavior. Shaking, aggression, loss of appetite, limping, and whining are all signals a dog is hurting. If you sense your animal companion is experiencing a physical problem, you should take it to a veterinarian.
Treatments for Canine Depression
Most dogs don’t need the help of medication for treating depression unless their condition is severe. Depending on the severity, treating your dog’s depression could take a few days or even a few months.
As an owner, providing your companion with love and care is essential to helping them feel better. Here are some methods recommended by alternative medicine therapist Denyse Lessard that you can use to help treat your pet’s depression:5
Spend More Quality Time With Your Pup
Provide your pup with regular activities they enjoy. Regular walks, playtimes at the dog park, and enrichment activities in short bursts are all-natural remedies that could help your dog overcome depression. If you notice your dog is cheered up after being outside, ensure outdoor activities can be enjoyed more frequently.
Bring Some Fun Into Your Dog’s Life
If your dog is grieving the loss of a friend or family member, make sure they visit with friends, take walks, play fetch in the park, and engage in similar enjoyable activities to help them feel better. You could also consider getting another pet if your situation allows.
Though your initial response might be to use treats to cheer up your pet, this can create an unhelpful association between feeling depressed and being rewarded with treats. To avoid teaching that symptoms of depression will give your companion animal access to goodies, ensure that it only receives extra attention when exhibiting happiness, like after a walk. If you notice your dog seems particularly depressed, do not praise or baby him. Wait for your dog to show moments of happiness and reward it accordingly.
Time is a great healer. If your routine has changed since your dog became depressed, give them time to adjust and make sure they receive extra love and care. No treatment will result in overnight relief of all your pet’s depression symptoms, but as you do your part to help them feel better, they will slowly regain their joyful demeanor.
Medication for Your Dog
If your dog’s condition persists, you may want to speak with your vet about the appropriateness of medication. Dogs use some of the same antidepressants as humans. These antidepressants are often prescribed by a medical professional for a short period and may result in undesirable side effects like drowsiness and lack of energy, but their side effects usually subside.5,11
Depression in pets is a condition of which to be aware. To avoid unnecessarily distressing your pet, consider the consequences of any changes to your pet’s routine and mitigate them. For instance, assess whether any new training programs or significant household alterations may negatively affect their mood. Monitor your pet’s mental health by keeping an eye on their behavior. Ensure they get plenty of exercise, stimulation, and quality time with you. Extra time outdoors, new toys or treats, and other enrichment activities and games may help improve your pet’s mood.
To fully determine if your dog is depressed, you should pay attention to any of the signs above and evaluate possible causes for the change in its behavior. It’s important not to diagnose depression in your dog by yourself—if your pet experiences significant or long-term signs of depression, you may want to take your pet to a veterinarian to seek professional treatment and care.