In the not-so-distant past, people didn’t think dogs were capable of much feeling. They relegated canines to farm dog status, not taking much stock in their pups’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions. People rarely considered the idea that their dog may be depressed.
If your dog seems depressed, read on to find out what common signs are.
Now more than ever, though, dogs are part of our families. They’re like siblings, daughters, sons. They share our homes and even our beds. We live with them for a decade or more if we’re lucky, and we grieve deeply when they pass on.
Thanks to the way that dogs are now family members, we’ve also caught on that dogs are highly emotional creatures. Says Stanley Coren, PhD, DSc, FRSC in an article for Psychology Today, “we now understand that dogs have all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs also have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states.”
Coren goes on to say that this doesn’t mean dogs experience emotion exactly like adult humans do. But they experience about what human two-and-a-half year olds experience: excitement, contentment, joy, shyness, love…and distress, disgust, fear, and anger.
And they can get depressed—for the short term or the long run.
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Triggers for Dog Depression
All sorts of things can trigger a dog’s depression, even if the symptoms ease after a few weeks. (And hopefully they do!)
Here are common triggers:
- The loss of a companion, whether dog or human
- A new family member’s arrival (like a screaming, squalling human baby!)
- A change in daily routine
- An illness or chronic condition in the dog
- Lack of owner attention (being left home for long periods)
Sometimes a dog’s depression lasts for months, although that’s rare.
If you’ve recently brought a new baby home, your dog might be feeling sad and displaced. Photo credit: Pixabay.
If you’ve recently experienced a major life change or your dog is just acting strange—but you’ve made sure she isn’t sick—here are 7 signs to watch for.
Changes in Eating Habits
If your pup usually loves to eat and loves her food but then stops, pay attention. Rule out any illnesses by taking her to the vet and try offering her something extra tasty, like a hard-boiled egg or a cooked and deboned piece of meat.
Take careful note if she just barely nibbles at these tasty treats. She may be too depressed to show much interest in any food.
That’s a red flag.
Sleeping More Than Usual
Dogs need lots of sleep already—around half of their 24-hour day will be spent sleeping or snoozing. But if your dog sleeps even more than that, he may be feeling extra down. Say, for example, your dog usually goes to sleep when you do, and then one day he begins falling asleep for the night an hour or two sooner and acting sluggish to wake up the next morning.
This could be a sign that something’s up.
If your dog is sleeping much more than usual, she might be depressed. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Decrease in Activity
Does your dog usually love to chase a tennis ball or swim in your local lake? Until one day…she just doesn’t seem remotely interested? As with humans, this is a major warning sign that your dog might be feeling depressed.
Don’t push your pup to do any of the once-beloved things. According to Jane Bowers, a certified dog trainer and certified canine behavior consultant in an article for Pet MD, “owners should latch on to the behaviors [their dogs] still show interest in. Don’t force them to do something they don’t want to do, even if it previously excited them.”
Forcing dogs to do things can make their depression worse, says Bowers.
Don’t force a depressed dog to play!
When my German shepherd dog, Bella, used to get nervous, she’d lick her paws…and lick, and lick, and lick. That’s when I knew she was feeling off and trying to soothe herself. After reassurance from me, she’d bounce back to normal and stop licking excessively.
But what if nothing seems to allay your dog’s constant licking?
It’s normal for a dog to lick, but not excessively.
It could be a sign that there’s a deeper reason for her licking—something’s making her so uncomfortable that she constantly feels the need to self-soothe.
Hiding More than Usual
Dogs often hide out of fear. My Alaskan shepherd, Eira, often hides when she’s caught trying to steal my toddler’s macaroni and cheese off the table. She knows something is wrong, and she wants to escape.
She’ll come out of hiding the moment she knows it’s “safe”, i.e., the moment I tell her she shouldn’t eat off the table but it’s okay to come out because I would never hurt her—even if she ate a whole bowl of macaroni. (She might feel a little ill, though!)
If your dog seems to constantly duck into secretive locations and stay there, you might have a depressed pup on your hands.
A Sad Face
This might sound silly, but hear me out: you know your dog better than anyone. You know when she’s happy, when she needs to go potty, when she wants out of her crate. Do you also know when she’s feeling sad?
Not all dog owners will, but some can.
My German shepherd, Bella, lived the first two years of her life with her mother, Clancy. Clancy died from cancer at the age of nine years old—and that first night without her lifelong companion, Bella howled all night long.
My German shepherd, Bella, in the water shortly after Clancy’s death.
She seemed to know Clancy wasn’t just visiting the vet and coming back in the morning, and she was mourning her deep loss.
A few days later, she swam by herself for the first time. Usually, she only followed Clancy or a stick into the water. But she just decided to do it on her own.
In her face, I saw sadness. Even though she was doing something new and exciting on her own, I knew she hadn’t forgotten Clancy.
This picture has always captured her grief perfectly for me.
If your pup looks sad to you, pay attention. She might need extra TLC from you.
Which brings us to our next point: now that you know these 7 signs, what should you do if you suspect your dog is depressed?
What to Do to Help Your Dog Through Depression
First, it’s helpful to find the trigger for your dog’s depression. If it’s a new baby, for example, you obviously can’t (and don’t want to) remove the trigger, but you will need to make a special effort to help your pup feel loved.
If, on the other hand, your work hours have gotten longer and you find yourself spending more time away from home—and your dog—you might need to do something more concrete, such as hire a dog-walker to exercise and love on your dog during the day.
Once you’ve pinpointed the reason, here are some things to keep in mind:
- If you have any inkling whatsoever that your dog’s depression might be caused by sickness, go to the vet immediately. Only once illness has been ruled out or taken care of can you move forward with a depression “diagnosis.”
- If your dog has lost a companion animal, it’s worth thinking about adopting a rescue or getting a new puppy to give her a companion once again. Make sure this choice is financially sound, though. You don’t want to put more stress on your family (that would stress your dog out, too).
- Pay close attention to the activities that still bring your dog joy, and do more of them. Same with food: if you find a treat your dog will actually eat, invest in more of that treat to coax your dog to eat her regular food.
- Shower your pup with extra love and attention. Bring her along in the car to work and pop out to say hi during breaks. If that’s not feasible, hire a dog sitter to watch her for an hour or two of your work day so she doesn’t feel as lonely.
- Spend some time just hanging out with your dog in nature. Don’t push exploration if your dog doesn’t feel up to it; often, just sitting in the sunshine can help both of you cheer up.
- Arrange a playdate with dog friend. Romping with a fellow canine can help boost your dog’s mood, especially if he’s still a puppy.
- If nothing else helps, ask your vet to prescribe an antidepressant to your dog. A vet might prescribe Zoloft, Clomicalm, Prozac, or other calming or antidepressant medications. (If you happen to take one of these medications yourself, DON’T just give some to your dog. A veterinarian will provide specific dosage based on your dog’s size and breed, and she’ll also tell you how long your pup will need to take it.)
Above All, Have Patience With Your Depressed Dog
Your dog needs time, love, and guidance—not impatience on your part. So take a deep breath, pet your pup, and let him know you’ll help him through this.
One day, he just might return the favor.