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What should I do if my dog is depressed?

Beagle dog looking depressed advice

Dogs can display the same behaviours as humans who have depression.

© Shutterstock

Sadly, just like people, dogs can get depressed. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to help your dog.

By Dr. Liz Barton MA, VetMB, MRCVS

Updated on the 11/08/2020, 14:24

Clinical depression in people is a well-recognised mental illness, which is diagnosed by asking a series of questions about feelings, emotions and behaviour. There are many symptoms of depression, including low mood, feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, lack of energy, change in appetite and problems with sleep. Because we cannot ask the same questions about feelings in dogs, it is not known if dogs experience depression in the same way as people do. Yet there are circumstances where a dog’s behaviour seems to mirror human clinical depression. Dogs can become withdrawn and inactive, with changes in their eating and sleeping habits. They are less likely to play or enjoy their walks.

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Yet these symptoms can also mean a dog has a medical problem, so the first course of action should always be a full check-up by a vet. A pet that mopes around and no longer wants to go for walks could simply have pain from arthritis, or if they are inappetent and lethargic, they may have a fever.

Why is my dog depressed and not eating?

Once a medical problem has been ruled out by a vet, other reasons can be considered, for example behavioural change can cause your dog to appear depressed and stop eating. It is believed dogs can experience grief, loneliness, boredom, stress, anxiety and fear, and this may affect their appetite. They are also creatures of habit, and sensitive to changes in their routine, environment and social group. Dogs are also very sensitive to our mood and emotions, and if we are suffering this may affect their own mood.

Dogs may become withdrawn, exhibit low activity levels, lose interest in the things they once enjoyed, and change their eating and/or sleeping habits. Some dogs may also show signs of anxiety or aggression, including howling or whining and restlessness.

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Do dogs get depression?

Dogs certainly can display the same behaviours as people who have depression. If the cause is not medical, it is presumed they are suffering from poor mental health. Depression in people is diagnosed by answering a series of questions about feelings and emotions. Because we cannot do the same for dogs, it is not possible to diagnose ‘depression’ in the same way. It is a diagnosis of exclusion – once all other causes are ruled out, and particularly if there are major changes to the dog’s life, such as a bereavement, it is presumed they are experiencing symptoms of depression. Yet it does tend to be shorter in duration and less severe than in people.

How do you cheer up a dog?

If your dog seems depressed, it’s most important to get them checked out by a vet and make sure there is no underlying medical reason. Provided they are otherwise well, increasing time spent with them, letting them enjoy tasty treats, games and walks should help to cheer them up and improve their mood.

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How can you help a dog with depression?

If your dog seems depressed, you can try the following:

  • Feed them tasty food, that is warmed and hand fed if they have a reduced appetite.
  • Play games – offer them both familiar and new toys to play with.
  • Go for frequent walks and explore new routes.
  • Get them to interact with other dogs and people, especially if they are familiar with them.
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What are the warning signs of a dog with depression?

Depression results in a change in mood. If your dog does not seem their normal self, if they stop enjoying things they normally would, such as playtime or food, they may be experiencing low mood or depression.

Is there a quiz to find out if my dog if depressed or sad?

The symptoms for depression and sadness in dogs are non-specific and may indicate a number of different medical problems. Because of this it is not advisable to rely on a home questionnaire for the initial diagnosis of a behavioural problem. If a vet rules out a medical problem, there are quizzes you can use to monitor their behaviour changes over time. This can help you to be objective about their mood, and pin down what is affecting your dog and the things that help your dog to feel better.

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Are there homeopathic remedies for dog depression?

Once a medical problem has been ruled out for your dog, you may want to try alternative therapies. No clinical trials exist proving the benefit of homeopathic remedies in people or dogs. In people, talking therapies and exercise are the basis of effective non-medical treatment. Providing your dog with company and plenty of fresh air and exercise is very likely to help improve their mood.

Is our dog depressed because we have a new dog in our family?

Dogs thrive on routine and knowing their place within the family ‘pack’. Bringing a new dog into the home can cause them to become unsettled, as both their routine and place in the family will change. Some dogs adapt quickly to this, but for others it can take longer. Often, a new puppy is introduced to an adult dog established in the family. Puppies love play time and can be boisterous and pester an older dog. The older dog may choose to withdraw to try to get calm time away from a puppy – this can be avoidance rather than depression.

Try to keep your dog’s routine as similar as possible, make sure they have their own safe space, and give them some one-on-one time with you while they are adjusting.

Having said that, sometimes getting a new dog can actually cause a depressed dog to cheer up and give them a new lease of life. This is especially true if it is bereavement and loss of a companion that has resulted in their low mood.

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When should I talk to a vet?

If your dog is showing reduced enjoyment of their favourite things, is struggling to settle, vocalising or there is a change in their appetite, it is important to have them checked for medical problems by a vet. If the problem is behavioural, the vet will be able to give guidance and advice on how best to help your dog. In very rare cases where this is not effective after a period of weeks, anti-depressants can be prescribed for dogs.

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