Maybe you’ve just moved, or you’ve brought home a new baby. Out of the blue, your usually energetic pooch is withdrawn and listless. Could your dog be depressed? Yes, say experts. And, depression in dogs isn’t so different from depression in people.
When Jodie Richers’ dog, Bada, died in 2002, her two other dogs, Terrace and Pumba, went through a mourning period. “We were all sad, but we got through it,” said Richers, of Roswell, Ga. “We did lots of car rides and dog parks; all the things they enjoyed.”
But when Pumba died in 2007, nothing could bring Terrace out of her funk. “She just got worse and worse,” Richers said. “At first she just shook. Then she wouldn’t go on walks. Then she stopped eating. Then she stopped drinking. She spent all her time hiding in a closet or behind a big mirror in my bedroom.” Richers’ vet diagnosed the fluffy, 35-pound mixed breed with dog depression.
Can Dogs Get Depressed?
Bonnie Beaver, DVM, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, said veterinarians don’t really know if dogs suffer from depression the same way people do. “It’s hard to know because we can’t ask them,” said Beaver, who also is a veterinary specialist in animal behavior at the small animal clinic at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine. “But in clinical practice, there are a few situations where that is the only explanation.”
Beaver said although it’s not uncommon for pets to get down, especially during periods of change, it’s rare for dogs to suffer from long-term depression.
What Are the Symptoms of Dog Depression?
Dog depression symptoms are very similar to those in people, said John Ciribassi, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. “Dogs will become withdrawn. They become inactive. Their eating and sleeping habits often change. They don’t participate in the things they once enjoyed.”
But vets warn those symptoms also can mean a dog has a medical problem, so the first course of action should always be a full checkup by a veterinarian. A pet that mopes around and no longer wants to go for walks could simply have pain from arthritis, Beaver says.
Causes of Dog Depression
Beaver said major changes in a dog’s life could lead to periods of depression. Those include moving into a new home, a new spouse or baby in the household, or adding another pet. Even a change in the dog’s schedule, for instance a stay-at-home owner who takes a job, can cause a dog to get down.
But the two most common triggers of severe dog depression are the loss of a companion animal or the loss of an owner. And be careful the dog isn’t simply responding to the reactions of other people in the home.
“Dogs pick up on our emotions, so if the owner has died, the dog could be responding to the grief of others,” Beaver said. “Or the dog may not be getting the attention he’s accustomed to, which is stressing him out.”
Dog Depression Treatments
Most dogs bounce back from depression within a few days to a few months with just a little extra TLC, said Ciribassi. “Keep them engaged, do more of the things they like to do, get them a little more exercise, and they should be fine,” he said.
And reward them when they show signs of happiness, Beaver said. “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,” Beaver said.
And be careful not to encourage the negative behavior by lavishing a depressed dog with attention and treats while he is moping, Beaver said. The dog will think you’re rewarding him for that behavior.
Sometimes, if the dog is depressed because of the loss of a companion, getting another pet can help, said Ciribassi. But it has to be done carefully with both the family’s and the dog’s needs taken into account, he said.
Medications for Dog Depression
If nothing else works, medications can help dogs get past their depression. Karen Sueda, DVM, a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, said medications for depressed dogs are the same as those used by depressed humans -- Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft. She also uses Clomicalm, an FDA approved drug for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs.
“It’s important that people deal with the problem before it gets too bad,” Sueda said. “By the time cases get to me, they’re bad. But most cases can be successfully treated early on with behavior modification and environmental enrichment, so it doesn’t have to get to the point where we need to use drugs.”
Beaver said it can take up to two months for drugs to become effective. But unlike people, who often remain on antidepressants for years, most dogs can get better in six to 12 months and then be taken off the drugs, she said.
Bouncing Back From Dog Depression
In the end it wasn’t the car rides or dog parks or even the antidepressants Richer tried to help her dog, Terrace. Instead it was a friendly rescue dog she agreed to foster for a week. “Benji walked in, ran up the stairs, found Terrace behind the mirror and when I got up there he was lying next to her and licking her,” Richer said. “Within a week, she was better. Now she’s the happiest dog ever.”