Have you ever looked into the eyes of a shelter or puppy mill dog, or one that has been on the streets, struggling to survive?
If you don’t think pets experience sadness and depression, you may want to think again. Changes in routine, a move, a new job that curtails important time together, lack of contact with a family member due to divorce, illness or death, someone going into a nursing home or away to camp or school, the loss of another pet, and other life-altering circumstances may elicit the same response from your dog as it can from members of the family. In fact, because dogs thrive on routine, which provides them with a sense of security, disruptions in general can create stress with its many byproducts that include inappetance, weight loss, minimal intake of water, lethargy, withdrawal, sleeping more or inability to sleep, clinging, and other behavioral changes–not unlike their human companions. So how do you identify signs of depression, and what can you do to make times of transition easier for your cherished pet?
First, it’s best to rule out physical illness or hormonal/chemical changes in your pet with a visit to the veterinarian. Be sure to report all of your observations, whether you think they are related or not, and let the vet do a full examination with blood work and anything else she may consider warranted. In warmer months, tick bites and accruing Lyme disease are also an issue with dogs, with lethargy in many cases a prominent symptom of the disease, so be sure to inquire about testing.
Next, if your dog is pronounced physically sound, consider any household or even neighborhood changes that may have occurred. Did your pet lose a canine playmate? Did someone move out? Is there an increasingly stressful situation going on in the home involving the family? Like small children, animals feel things deeply without the advantage of being able to articulate these feelings, and depression can result.
So what steps can you take to prevent depression or facilitate your pet’s return to a healthy emotional state if she experiences it?
In situations where a family member has passed away, some people tend to withdraw into themselves and animals are no different. At these times, it is particularly important to interact and spend as much quality time as possible with your pet, which can help both of you heal. Some years ago, in one particularly tragic event, a family’s teenaged son was killed in a plane crash, whereupon his dog, who clearly felt the loss, would spend days and weeks on his deceased master’s bed, whimpering for hours on end. The grief that many animals feel is no less substantial and profound to them than the kind of loss that consumes us. How else can you explain that it is neither uncommon in the animal kingdom nor human society for a surviving spouse to quickly follow another in death, or for a dog in one household to pass away just weeks after the death of his best canine friend.
If another pet in your household has recently died, sometimes bringing a new one into the environment can refocus a depressed dog’s attention. Be sure to pay just as much attention to your emotionally ailing companion as you do to acclimating the new dog, however, or your actions may even exacerbate the depression. Experts agree that gentle, frequent, reassuring touch, maybe in the form of massage (be careful not to rub dogs too vigorously as their muscles are closer to the surface than ours) can work to help soothe and relax a depressed animal.
Increased exposure to sunlight is another option for alleviating depression both in humans and animals, according medical and veterinary professionals, as is more frequent exercise–long, brisk walks; tossing a ball in the park; a run together on the beach–all of which release endorphins necessary for feelings of well-being.
As dogs, unlike cats, are extremely social creatures, depression can also occur in canines left alone for hours at a time, day in and day out. A few days a week at a reputable doggy daycare facility can work to stimulate, energize, and further develop socialization skills. Be sure to check licensing and references, as well as ascertaining if the dog will be isolated in a cage which can defeat the purpose for daycare. It’s the opportunity to interact with other dogs and make friends that’s the goal.
Finally, if all else fails, there are homeopathic remedies on the market (be sure to administer under the supervision of a veterinary or holistic veterinary professional). Some vets will even prescribe conventional antidepressants, though these should always be a last resort as what your pet may need most is you.
The important thing to remember in times of change is to be fully present for your pet, as he would want to be for you. When you think about it, life is a series of transitions, some more easily made than others, but often much harder on those that cannot understand.