Dogs and mental health: Is my pup depressed?

We can always count on our four-legged friends to lift our spirits. It’s impossible to feel sad while being licked to death. And every ounce of work stress drifts away the second you step through the door to the sound of their tail thwacking the floor. 

Many pawrents credit their dogs with boosting their mental health. Their goofy faces and little quirks are the perfect little (or not-so-little) serotonin boosters. And that’s brilliant. But we’re not alone in our mental struggles.

Dogs can struggle with their mental health too. In fact, Emory University found that dogs’ brains have a lot of structural similarities with our own. Their processing of emotions is largely the same. Just because they don’t have the language to communicate feelings of sadness, anxiety, or stress doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t bubbling away under the surface.

Let’s start by breaking down three of the most common mental health issues experienced by pups. And because dogs can’t tell us how they’re feeling, we’re also going to share some of the behavioural changes you can look out for.

Anxiety

It’s not unusual for dogs to feel anxious. Especially if they’ve experienced past trauma or their routine has suddenly changed. There are a few different types of anxiety to be wary of. 

For one, there’s separation anxiety. If your pup starts acting up whenever you’re about to leave the house or behaves destructively while you’re gone, they might be suffering from separation anxiety.

There’s also social anxiety, which commonly develops if they’ve experienced neglect or trauma in the past. It can lead to changes in behaviour and aggression while around other dogs or humans. 

And finally, noise anxiety. There’s a reason Bonfire Night is a pup’s least favourite night of the year. Unexpected loud noises – such as thunderstorms, fireworks, or bangs – can be distressing for dogs who can’t see them coming or understand the context. So if your pooch acts out when loud noises are occurring, this will be why.

Despite there being many reasons for a pup to feel anxious, the signs will usually look the same. All of these could mean your pooch is going through some anxiety:

  • Compulsive licking, grooming, or sniffing
  • Avoiding eye contact 
  • Diarrhoea and vomiting
  • Lethargy or restlessness
  • Pacing or destructive behaviour
  • Hiding or persistent escape attempts 
  • Moving away when approached
  • Self-injuring
  • Trembling or whimpering
  • Yawning despite not being tired
  • Changes to drinking and eating habits

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Depression

There’s no way for us to know whether dogs experience depression in the same way we do. But we do know they can experience deep sadness and withdrawal. Major life changes, grief, or changes in routine can all lead to signs of depression.

We can’t ask our pups if they’re feeling sad or depressed, so look out for the following behaviours:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced activity
  • Lethargy
  • Excessive sleeping or inability to sleep
  • More withdrawn and less social 
  • Refusal of water or treats
  • Increases in shedding
  • Drastic and otherwise unexplained changes to behaviour 

The good news is that depression in dogs is usually only temporary. With the right care and enough time to acclimatise to whatever set them off, they should be back on top form.

Compulsive behaviours

Compulsive behaviours are actions you might consider as normal for your pooch, only they’re exaggerated or repeated in unexpected situations. It’s anything that seems out of context or strange. These behaviours will usually begin as a way to soothe anxiety, boredom, or frustration. But they can become ritualised and problematic over time. 

Licking their paw makes sense if they’ve recently injured it. But doing so to excess whenever you have people over is a sign it might be compulsive and that your dog is feeling uncomfortable or unsettled. This is also an example of how compulsive behaviours can be harmful. Obsessive licking could lead to skin irritation or other conditions. 

Common compulsive behaviours include:

  • Barking
  • Licking to excess
  • Pacing
  • Tail chasing
  • Sucking/chewing
  • Decreases in activity
  • Self-injuring

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What are the common causes?

By understanding the main causes of mental health issues in dogs, you’ll be better placed to recognise any worrisome changes in behaviour. Plus, by minimising any of the following, you might be able to avoid or limit the onset of future struggles for your pooch.

Anxiety, depression, and compulsive behaviours can all be a result of:

  • Large life/routine changes – this might include something major like a new baby, spouse, or pet, or moving house. Or be something relatively minor such as a new dog carrier or changing shift patterns.
  • Someone leaving the home – your children moving away to university can be a big deal for your pooch. As can divorce, the death of a family member, or the passing of another pet.
  • Surgery – recovery can be tough on both their bodies and minds.
  • Trauma – this can be past or present trauma. For example, if your pup was abused before finding their forever home. Or if they were recently in a car accident or something equally traumatic.
  • Illness or genetics.

The cause of your pup’s struggles might not always be obvious. Assessing your home environment and any recent routine or lifestyle changes will be useful. It’ll help you narrow down why they’re acting the way they are.

Is there any treatment?

How you respond to your pooch’s behaviour will depend on the nature and severity of the problem. If you know exactly what’s triggering their mood a few subtle lifestyle adjustments could be enough to nip the problem in the bud. You might change your working hours or make sure someone else is home soon after you leave. Or, if it’s noise anxiety on Bonfire Night, items such as weighted blankets might prove invaluable.

Making sure your pup is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation is also important for combating poor mental health. A monotonous, sedentary routine can quickly lead to anxiety or depression. So work to include a varied range of mentally and physically stimulating activities into their routine. 

Take your pooch’s lead on what they enjoy most. Letting them enjoy the activities they love will work wonders for their mental health. Playing fetch, nose work, going for a dip in the local pond. Whatever it is they love to do, do even more of it.

If your pup’s triggers are something they need to overcome – for example, other people or dogs – desensitisation might be a good option. It involves gradually introducing the trigger, allowing your dog to grow more comfortable or ambivalent towards it over time. For this, you might meet a new partner in a neutral, safe environment like a park before they move in. Each time you meet, you might gradually add time to the encounter and encourage closer contact with your pooch, helping them readjust.  

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What else?

Now this next one is going to sound contradictory. But sometimes, all your pup will need to overcome their struggles is comfort and attention or space. Which of the two they need will depend. 

Some dogs will want to be stuck to you like glue, getting all the pets they need. Others will want their space. Excessive attention could actually lead to more anxiety or stress. As pawrents, it’s up to us to follow our dog’s cues about what they want and need from us. 

In more persistent cases, your vet may be able to recommend anti-anxiety medications to help ease their symptoms. Maintaining regular vet visits will also help to identify whether their anxiety or depression might actually be caused by pain or other underlying health issues. From here, natural or prescribed medicines could be enough to get them back to their best.

We rely on our pup’s to brighten our lives. But sometimes it’s a pawrent’s job to support our dogs while they go through their own battles. By understanding common mental health problems, learning how to spot them, and knowing how to overcome them, you’ll be able to support your own pooch in the best possible way.

At Swagwags, we take a holistic approach to pup health and happiness. You can’t understate the importance of a delicious, nutritious diet for keeping your dog content and thriving. It’s why our kibbles are completely transparent and packed full of healthy ingredients and protein sources. Order your own today

Or, if your dog’s experiencing reactions and you don’t know why, our 100% bespoke sensitivity tests could give all the answers you need.