Veterinary Blog

Pets Can Experience Depression Too!

By Dr. Leslie Ross D.V.M. BSc.

On occasion, every one of us has experienced lazy or bored days. Similarly, many animals and pet birds can experience days when they lack motivation and drive. Generally, these sessions of time are short-lived and of no particular health concern. Often they are associated with the weather, season, or lack of environmental stimulation. However, it is important to not equate these quiet times with true depression, which is a natural emotion shared by a surprising range of living creatures, including dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, mice and rats. Typical signs of depression in dogs, cats as well as with companion birds include extended periods of sluggishness, excessive sleepiness, changes of personality, a dulling of appetite, and, on occasion, weight loss.

Two common causes of emotional depression in cats and dogs are associated with either the loss of an attentive owner or the loss of a companion animal that the depressed pet was closely bonded to. Other causes of “the blues” include the experience of severe trauma such as an injury or attack by another dog or, the influence of extended periods of bad weather interfering with the need of fit, active animals to “let off steam ” outdoors.

“ A lot of what passes for depression these days is nothing more than a body saying that it needs work.” Geoffrey Norman

Of course, it is very important to not overlook the possibility that a seemingly emotionally depressed animal with changed behavior actually has developed a medical condition that needs to be addressed. For example, arthritis in dogs can cause inactivity and apparent lethargy; especially in the winter months, and hyperthyroidism in cats can cause night restlessness and vocalization. Therefore, it is very wise for an owner to have a pet that appears to be quiet or “in a funk” for more that a day or two to be examined by his or her veterinarian.

Even if one’s pet is healthy, it may be experiencing cyclic influences that are causing the changed behavior. This especially applies to unsprayed female pets. For example, hormonal influences such as those that occur during heat seasons, pregnancy and the birthing process can cause an increased tendency towards anxiety and appetite changes or in some cases, extreme behaviors such as cannibalism of kittens by queens or savaging of pups by mother dogs. Again, your veterinarian will be able to explain to you these hormonal influences and prepare you to assist your companion pet during these periods of ups and downs.

Medication effects can mimic signs of emotional depression, either from direct side effects, or indirectly due to their effect on the metabolism of other drugs. Generally, these effects are mild and resolve over time or with appropriate dosage adjustments.

Owners unfamiliar with a breed of pet may assume erroneously that their pet is experiencing emotional depression when actually, it is just displaying a normal behavior for the breed, for example, Italian Grey Hounds and Whippets often like to “dive under the covers” and hide, particularly during cold weather and often for longer periods of time as the get older.

Whenever pets, especially dogs and cats, experience a sudden change, it can be a large emotional hurdle for the pet. Some examples of stressful changes could come in the form of an addition to the family such as a new dog cat, baby or human room-mate, by an outside event such as if the neighbor moves away with their dog, or if there is a cancellation of a care-giver’s previous walk routine. Emotional depression occurring after the loss of a caregiver or the loss of a companion animal or bird is a real experience for many pets. This kind of emotional depression is backed up by numerous research studies. Sometimes this mourning period is short-lived, other times it can go on for months depending on how sensitive the pet is and also how capable it is at adjusting to a new routine.

To best understand and assist an emotionally depressed pet it is important to not allow one’s interpretation of the animal’s emotional state to be influenced by a natural tendency to attribute human thinking patterns to those of animals In general, the consensus by animal behaviorists is that pets think in the present and leave their past in the past. Also, they do not tend to dwell on negative thoughts. However, whenever pets experience a sudden change, they certainly can be influenced to varying degrees, especially if it involves the loss of an owner or companion. Of course, because animals can’t speak about their feelings, we can only surmise that they actually do mourn the loss of their cherished companion. Most animal behaviorists and veterinarians, including myself, do believe that animals actually mourn. (It is worth noting, as an aside, that a study by the University of Portsmouth has shown that emotions like pride, embarrassment, shame and jealousy have all been observed in dogs and other domesticated animals such as cats, horses, rabbits and hamsters). Other explanations for the depression include the fact that whenever pets experience a sudden change, it upsets the balance in their lives influencing their behavior until they re-adjust. For example, some forms of apparent behavioral change after loss of a companion pet may actually be associated with the loss of a younger animal that was the “eyes and ears” for the older one, or that was the usual instigator of playful activities.

To assist an emotionally depressed pet it is beneficial to try to establish as soon as possible a regular routine of exercise and mealtimes. Increased consistent interaction with the pet is often of value, such as sitting on a cushion on the floor with a dog or cat as one watches TV to be at his or her level, and regular more frequent brushing. Often it can help to start a new game with lots of positive food rewards as an incentive. Even cats will appreciate this kind of interaction, which may involve laser lights and clicker training, again with tasty treats as a reward at the end of the game. For dogs experiencing the loss of a companion pet, acquiring a new dog or signing him up for doggie daycare may be the best approach. Of course, if one is considering acquiring a new dog, it is important to ensure compatibility with the new companion at the outset to avoid double trouble!

As mentioned above, like cats and dogs, pet birds and rabbits can experience feelings of depression too. Feather picking and other forms of self-trauma behavior are common signs of a stressed bird. Most commonly these actions are associated with a lack of environmental stimulation and exercise. Three simple measures that often can help a stressed bird to regain its normally more alert and (hopefully) naturally cheerful nature include: rearranging of the “interior decorations” of the bird’s cage, provision of new, interesting toys, and increased playful interactions of the owner with the bird. Again, it is very important to ensure at the outset that there is not an underlying medical condition causing these signs since birds can easily fall ill without much warning. Depressed rabbits often respond well to increased interactions with their owners and also to provision of more exercise. Access to good-quality local hay on a 24-7 basis also helps them stay healthy as well as busy. In my practice, I make it a standard policy to emphasize to rabbit owners the importance of decreasing pelleted rations and increasing hay rations to their rabbits to benefit their dental and digestive health as well as their pet’s mental state.

For prolonged depression, sometimes mood-altering medications are the most effective approach. Dogs, cats and even pet birds often respond quite dramatically to prescription medications such as Valium and Prozac. Although much less potent, but still often effective in milder cases of depression are botanical extracts such as St. Johns Wort, lavender and Harmonease and nutritional supplements such as tryptophan and Anxitene. It is important to consult with your veterinarian before any of these herbal extract products mentioned above are considered since some of them can cause adverse interactions when used in inappropriate combinations with each other.

It is commonly known that pets provide comfort and even health benefits to seniors and in fact, to people of all ages. They are loyal and offer us unconditional love and acceptance. It seems the least that we can do, along with caring for their physical health, that we care about their emotional health as well. Although there is no “ cookie-cutter” approach to treating depression in animals due to the variety of causes, once medical causes are ruled out, direct and rewarding positive interactions of the owner with the pet along with a quickly re-established routine of care will often be just what the doctor ordered!

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