By Sid Kirchheimer
A once perky pooch may now be listless and withdrawn. Or a dog who previously had the tolerance and patience of Job might have turned aggressive, snapping at the kids or destroying furniture.
Could these be signs of depression?
“It’s hard to know for sure because we can’t ask what they’re feeling, and have no tests to specifically gauge depression in dogs,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “That’s why it’s important to see a vet whenever your dog experiences any sudden change in behavior — to rule out a possible medical condition ranging from GI upset to cancer. But certainly, there are situations where depression seems to be the only explanation.”
Leading the list, perhaps to no surprise, is loss of a family member. “We definitely can say we see depression in dogs when there’s a death of a person or another pet in that household, or someone moves out,” notes John Ciribassi, DVM, of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and co-editor of the book Decoding Your Dog.
But don’t dismiss seemingly small changes in everyday routine. “The trigger for depression in dogs doesn’t have to be something we consider to be drastic or life-changing. If a dog always lays on the couch and suddenly it’s replaced with a new [couch], that dog could become depressed because it’s a life-changing event for the animal,” said Mark Verdino, DVM, chief of veterinary staff at North Shore Animal League in New York, which is billed as the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization.
6 Symptoms of Dog Depression You Shouldn’t Ignore
Depression affects different dogs in different ways. Here are some common indicators:
Being down in mood and body. “The most common symptom is sadness — a lack of joy or interest in what the dog used to look forward to,” says petMD blogger Jennifer Coates, DVM. This is usually displayed by lethargy, inactivity and moping. Other clues-to-the-blues include a hanging head, tail down or between the legs, or usually perky ears appearing to be droopy or “pulled back.”
“You want to get the dog back into the routine before the life-changing event,” advises Victoria Shade, noted dog trainer and author of Bonding with Your Dog: A Trainer's Secrets for Building a Better Relationship. “And when you see any spark — a tag wag, a pep in his step — definitely make a fuss to reinforce positive behavior.”
If the dog is “mourning” a playmate, a substitute should step up: “If Dad had walked the dog or played fetch and now has left the environment,” says Dr. Verdino, “Mom or another family member should take over — and maybe go for longer walks than before.”
Change in eating habits. Most depressed dogs eat less; some refuse food or, occasionally and more dangerously, water. It’s rare, but dogs who previously were “grazers” might become more aggressive eaters or beg for more food.
“Try to stick to their feeding schedule as much as possible — give them a finite amount of time to eat and remove the bowl,” says Shade. “But in desperate times, you might want to sweeten the pot with some wet food or another food incentive. Just be mindful that the dog may want to stick with it, so you have to be careful.”
Oversleeping. Although dogs average about 14 hours of sleep per 24-hour cycle — much of it in a series of naps — some depressed dogs may find it hard to get out of bed. “This usually goes with inactivity, so try to keep the dog as active as possible,” suggests Dr. Ciribassi.
Destructive and/or aggressive behavior. Usually affecting normally calmer dogs, this usually suggests the pet isn’t getting enough exercise, says Shade.
Seeming “lost” at home. Particularly following the loss of a family member, some depressed dogs pace from room-to-room “looking for that individual,” says Dr. Ciribassi. “Others no longer engage in normal 'greeting behaviors' when family members come home. These behaviors may be accompanied with more whining or sighing."
Household accidents. Pets without their usual get-up-and-go are less likely to get up to go, especially when they’re not eating and drinking normally, notes Dr. Coates. It’s nothing personal, so be patient, and spend more time outdoors.
“As long as they’re eating and drinking, peeing and pooping, and still want to take walks, it’s not really a problem. Just like people, depressed dogs don’t just bounce back after a week when they’re grieving,” says Dr. Coates.
Patience or Prozac for Depressed Dog?
With attention, activity, and a reconnection with previously enjoyable routines, most dogs tend to overcome depression on their own, sometimes within a few days, but as long as several months. In extreme cases, however, antidepressants such as Prozac may be used, typically for the short-term and usually following the loss of a family member, which tends to trigger the most serious cases.
“In my experience, I don’t see a difference among breeds, but older dogs are more prone to depression than younger [dogs] because they have had more time to develop those deep, deep bonds — and they aren’t as a resilient to change,” notes Dr. Coates.
But no matter the age, any indicators of depression are cause for concern. A checkup with the veterinarian is essential; not only because depressive symptoms can mask an existing physical condition, depression may also cause them.
“Studies suggest, and I’ve seen it myself, that stress alone is enough to bring on physical illness in dogs — just like in people,” adds Dr. Coates. “And depression is a huge stressor.”