6 Reasons Why Your Dog May Be Depressed and 5 Ways to Help

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

depressed dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs may not experience depression in the same way we do, but they experience mood and behavior changes that can look a lot like a depressive episode
  • Reasons a dog may feel depressed include insufficient exercise, punitive behavior training, an underlying medical problem, or loss of a family member or a pet he was bonded to
  • Tips to help a depressed dog include keeping daily routines and mealtimes consistent, distracting her with healthy, fun activities, and offering natural remedies as needed

Dogs may or may not suffer from depression in the same way humans do, but they definitely experience mood and behavior changes that are typically short-lived and the result of a recent event in a dog's life.

Some dogs feel let down at the start of the school year when their playmates are no longer around. Often, an existing dog shows signs of sadness when a second dog is added to the family. Dogs who suffer the loss of a family member (human or pet) often go through a grieving period. And of course, many new canine residents at animal shelters suffer a period of sorrow and uncertainty.

The problem with diagnosing clinical depression (which is different from transient episodes of depressed behavior) is that even in humans, there's no biological test to identify the condition. A physician makes note of symptoms and what the patient tells them about their feelings and arrives at an "educated guess" diagnosis.

Since dogs can't talk to us, we have to use our powers of observation to determine if our animal companion is feeling blue. Generally speaking, when a vet or veterinary behaviorist describes a patient as depressed, the dog is displaying a change in normal behavior.

Possible Causes of Depression in Dogs

Lack of exercise — Some dogs actually become socially inhibited when they aren't getting enough exercise and playtime. This can take the form of a decrease in interaction with other family members or choosing to isolate themselves in their crate or another room. If your normally happy dog suddenly isn't, consider the possibility that she needs more exercise. A lot more daily exercise.

Most dogs need much more physical activity than their owners realize. Your dog should be getting an absolute minimum of 20 minutes of sustained heart-thumping exercise three times a week. Thirty minutes is better than 20, and six or seven days a week is better than three.

Minimum exercise requirements prevent muscle atrophy, but don't necessarily build muscle mass, strengthen tendons and ligaments, hone balance and proprioception, or enhance cardiovascular fitness, which is why more is always better. If you can provide your dog daily walks as well as additional daily training sessions to meet your other exercise goals, even better!

Lots of long smell sessions, as a part of your dog's "cool down" period after exercise, is a fantastic way to let your dog meet her daily outdoor sniffing requirements, another important behavior that can provide tremendous mental enrichment. I believe sniffing isn't just enjoyable for dogs, it's a requirement for healthy cognitive stimulation.

Lack of human interaction — A healthy dog who is feeling depressed may lose interest in eating or playing, become destructive, have accidents in the house, or stop running to greet you when you come through the door. Like a sleepy, sluggish dog, a depressed pooch often just needs more quality time with his human.

Get into the habit of spending an uninterrupted hour with your dog each day engaging in physical pursuits, grooming rituals, training exercises, and good old belly rubs. It will lighten both your moods!

Punishment — Dogs who are punished for undesirable behavior instead of being rewarded for positive behavior may stop interacting with their owners in an attempt to avoid mistreatment. They adopt a depressive state of mind called "learned helplessness" because they feel powerless to avoid negative situations.

I can't stress strongly enough the importance of positive reinforcement behavior training, not only to help your dog become a good canine citizen, but also to preserve and protect the all-important bond you share with him.

Undiagnosed medical problem — If your dog's behavior changes, even if you suspect you know why, it's always a good idea to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

Many changes in behavior symptomatic of depression, including lack of appetite, potty accidents in the house, sleeping more than usual, reluctance to exercise and sudden aggressive behavior in a dog who has never shown aggression, can also be signs of any number of underlying medical conditions.

You're depressed — Your dog is very sensitive to your emotional state, which she can detect by observing the tone of your voice, your body language and other subtle clues, including your pheromones (how you smell). The way you move, speak and behave all send subtle signals to your dog that indicate your mood.

For example, when you're in a situation that's stressful to your dog, such as at your veterinarian's office, she'll look to you to help her calm down. If she senses tension in you, she'll likely become even more anxious. Your dog is extremely intuitive; so, if you're feeling blue, don't be surprised if she seems depressed as well.

Loss of a human family member or pet — It's not unusual for dogs to grieve the loss of a person or animal friend they're bonded with. Experts in animal behavior believe dogs feel the same basic emotions humans do, including grief, fear, anger, happiness, sadness, and even possessiveness.

When a dog is mourning a loss, depression is common. Signs of depression in dogs mimic those in people, and include sleeping more than normal, moving more slowly, eating less, and showing a limited interest in playing.

If your dog seems depressed at the loss of a person or animal he was close to, engage him in daily activities he enjoys, such as a walk, a game of fetch, or a trip to the dog park. It's really a matter of distracting him with things he enjoys until sufficient time has passed and he's no longer looking around every corner for the one who is now absent from his life.

And it's best not to expect a quick fix. It can take from a few weeks to a few months before your dog's depressed mood begins to lift. Planning several engaging activities each day during this time is the best way to help him out of his funk.

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5 Tips for Helping a Depressed Dog

1. Keep daily routines as consistent as possible — Pets do best when they know what to expect from one day to the next. Try to keep mealtimes, exercise, walks, playtime, grooming, bedtime and other daily activities on a consistent schedule. Exercise is a powerful tool to help increase your pooch's endorphins, or "feel good" hormones. Lots of walks (with plenty of opportunities to sniff) can be a powerful mood enhancer.

2. Keep your dog's diet and mealtimes the same and spice up the menu — It's important to continue to offer him the same food he's used to, at the same time each day, but if you find your dog isn't interested in eating much, consider offering a yummy knucklebone for dessert, or make a tasty treat for training time that he hasn't had before.

Store what he doesn't eat in the fridge and offer it to him again at his next regularly scheduled mealtime. Use his hunger to help him get his appetite back by resisting the urge to entice him with unhealthy food toppers.

3. Use natural remedies, if needed — There are some excellent homeopathic and Bach flower remedies that can be easily administered to your depressed dog until you see an emotional shift for the better. Some of my favorites include homeopathic Ignatia, several Bach flower remedies including Mustard and Honeysuckle, and Green Hope Farm Grief and Loss.

4. Be careful not to inadvertently reward your dog's depression — It's only natural to want to comfort your sad pet, but unfortunately, giving attention to a dog who is displaying an undesirable behavior can reinforce the behavior. Obviously, the last thing you want to do is reward a lack of appetite, inactivity or other types of depressed behavior in your dog. Instead, you want to help her over the hump.

A better idea is to try to distract her with healthy, fun activities that provide opportunities for positive behavior reinforcement. This can be a walk, short training sessions, a game of fetch, nose work or offering her a food puzzle toy or recreational bone.

5. Give it time — Your dog's depression may take a few days or even weeks to blow over, but eventually most pets return to their normal lively selves. If at any point you feel your pet is suffering unnecessarily or there is something more going on than a case of the blues, I recommend discussing the situation with your vet or a veterinary behaviorist.

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