Is My Dog Depressed?

While depression can't be diagnosed quite the same in our canine counterparts, here's what to do if you think your dog may be down in the dumps.

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When a dog is suddenly no longer interested in their favorite activities, whether it’s playing Frisbee in the park or chasing squirrels in the backyard, most animal behavior experts will tell you to look for a physical explanation, not a mental-health recommendation. Taking your four-legged friend to the vet for a physical exam should always be the first response to what seems like depression. A change in behavior can usually be attributed to underlying physical conditions like arthritis or pain.

“Depression is typically more of a human term since it has a number of symptoms that have to do with how one feels…and we obviously can’t ask a dog how they’re feeling,” explains Dr. Brian J. Bourquin, veterinarian and owner of the Boston Veterinary Clinic. “However, they can certainly be diagnosed with conditions like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).”

sad looking dog

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Signs of Depression in Dogs

Dr. Jill E. Sackman, head of the behavioral medicine service for BluePearl hospitals in Michigan, agrees that while there may not be a clinical diagnosis for depression in veterinary medicine, dogs who are considered depressed by their owners may appear withdrawn, less active, or disinterested in what’s going on around them. However, if your dog is suddenly showing any of these symptoms, she recommends making an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out any medical conditions. “If your dog used to jump up in the morning, gobble down his breakfast, andrun and play outside—and now he just wants to lay in his bed all day—you have to rule out any medical issues first,” she advises.

As humans, we may never know if a dog is truly depressed, but he may exhibit signs and behaviors similar to those associated with depression in people. According to Dr. Karen Sueda, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior and veterinarian practicing at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital in California, these may include lethargy or fatigue, increased sleepiness, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, lack of appetite, weight loss or weight gain, restlessness or agitation.

A change in behavior could indicate a number of factors; your dog may just be getting older, or he is reacting to a shift in his day-to-day routine. Sometimes significant changes like the addition of new pets to your home, your dog’s loss of mobility due to ageing, or a family member moving out can put real strain on your dog’s emotional health.

The Difference Between Depression and Anxiety in Dogs

Your dog may not necessarily be depressed, but instead dealing with more common behavioral conditions like fear or anxiety. “We’re asking a different species to live in a human environment and live by ‘human rules’ that they may not comprehend…so it’s understandable that this may lead to fear and anxiety if they don’t understand what we’re asking of them or why,” Dr. Sueda explains.

Signs of fear and anxiety in dogs may include physical indicators like dilated eyes or a tucked tail as well as behavioral signs like panting or trembling, and they may become hyper-vigilant towards their environment and more easily startled, she notes. More subtle signs include displacement behaviors such as lip licking, yawning, scratching, and sniffing that are being done out of context. “This is similar to a nervous person bouncing their leg, biting their nails, or playing with their hair when he or she is anxious,” she explains.

There are things dog lovers can do to help if their dogs seem depressed. Dr. Bourquin recommends seeking out a dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement instead of aversive techniques so as not to intensify your dog’s mental health condition (look for the credentials KPA, CCPDT, and/or this last one is the name of an organization, not the credential they offer).

At home, dog companions can work to create an environment that satisfies their dog’s needs, such as finding activities that engage them and establishing predictable routines—and when necessary, they can also turn to medications. “Lots of dogs need pharmacological help, such as Prozac. Many dog lovers are afraid to give drugs to their dogs, but when we’re talking about GAD, we’re not talking about a dog who gets stressed out when you leave the house…we’re talking about a dog who thinks their life is ending every time you pick up your car keys,” Dr. Bourquin concludes. “But there are definitely things you can do and medications you can offer your dog to get him over the hump.”

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