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October 8, 2020 is National Depression Screening Day, which is dedicated to educating and raising awareness of this common condition. Depression affects 17.3 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which is roughly 7.1 percent of U.S. adults.
The health benefits of pets are widely known, especially for treatment of depression and anxiety. (See emotional support dogs and therapy dogs!) But what happens when it’s your dog who has depression?
Recognizing Depression in Dogs
As you can imagine, diagnosing dog depression is a bit trickier than in humans. Instead of having the patient fill out a survey or questionnaire, veterinarians must rely on the observations of pet parents. “It’s hard to know because we can’t ask them,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, Executive Director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “But in clinical practice, there are a few situations where that is the only explanation.”
Symptoms of Dog Depression
The signs of depression in dogs are fairly vague and can also indicate many other medical conditions. Decreased appetite, weight loss, disinterest in activities, and excessive fatigue can indicate something is off with your pet. You know your dog better than anyone, so it’s important to pay attention to any sudden changes in behavior or activity.
If you decide to visit the veterinarian, write down all the symptoms your pet is experiencing, as well as any medications, supplements, and prescription diets you are giving. Keep in mind that your dog’s disinterest in food or daily walks doesn’t necessarily mean he is dealing with depression. Arthritis causes joint pain, leading to a slower gait as dogs age; in addition, loss of appetite can be a sign of infection, parasites, cancer, or gastrointestinal upset.
Causes of Dog Depression
A sudden environmental change is responsible for depression in many dogs. Loss of a family member – human or animal – is the most commonly reported cause. Adding a new pet, spouse, or baby to the household can also trigger depression, especially in dogs with a history of anxiety or other behavioral issues. Changes to the normal routine, such as children going back to school or parents taking a new shift at work, can leave dogs feeling unsettled or abandoned.
Animals are exceptionally intuitive so a change to your emotional state can affect your dog too. All of the above conditions (death, new parenthood, moving) are also risk factors for depression in humans. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself, so you can take care of your pet.
How to Treat Depression in Dogs
Treatment for doggie depression focuses on lifestyle changes, namely paying special attention to your pup. Find what makes your pet happy. Is it going on car rides, mingling at the dog park, or playing fetch in the backyard? Praising signs of happiness in your pup is another approach suggested by animal behaviorists. “If the only thing that still gets a little tail wag out of your dog is a car ride, then take him for a series of short rides each day, praising and rewarding him when he appears happier,” advises Dr. Beaver. If your dog’s depression is due to the loss of a canine companion, adopting another can often help with loneliness. (October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, wink wink…)
Medications may be used to treat dog depression when lifestyle and behavioral modifications prove unsuccessful. Your veterinarian can determine the best medication for your dog. Unlike in humans who usually require long-term medications to control depression, most dogs can be slowly weaned off in six to twelve months.