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Warning Signs Your Pet May Be Depressed

Look for these telltale changes in your dog or cat's behavior


(This story appeared previously on Vetstreet.com.)

Pets do not suffer from depression the way people experience depression, but they do experience it.

People with depression frequently report feeling sad, anxious, irritable, hopeless or have thoughts of suicide. They experience changes in their appetite, such as eating more or less. People may also experience a decreased interest in pursuing activities that they normally enjoy.

We suspect that our pets are suffering from depression based on nonspecific signs that persist for longer than one to two weeks and that cannot be explained by an underlying medical condition.

These nonspecific signs may include changes in their activity level, sleep-wake cycle, appetite and interactions with their owners or housemates. Most commonly, there is an event that triggers the onset, such as a profound loss of a housemate or owner or when relinquished for adoption in a shelter environment or re-homed to another family.

Even seemingly normal events, such as the arrival of a baby or the move of a household, can trigger changes in our pets. There is a period of adjustment, and we may surmise that perhaps there is a period of grief and depression.

Even seemingly normal events, such as the arrival of a baby or the move of a household, can trigger changes in our pets.

If your pet exhibits any of these unusual signs, and/or you suspect he is depressed, he should be examined immediately by your veterinarian. Many times, underlying health problems may produce similar physical signs.

For example, pets with arthritis or discomfort in a particular area of their bodies may be less active and restless at night. Animals with uncontrolled diabetes or dogs with hypothyroidism may appear lethargic.

If your veterinarian cannot determine any physical problems after a physical examination and recommended testing, such as bloodwork and radiographs, then the diagnosis for depression may be more definitive. You can also keep a daily diary and record measurable behaviors, such as duration of a walk the pet goes on or how many times your pet will chase his toy or the fact that he won’t play with it at all.

Decreased Appetite

Another suspicious sign of depression may be a pet with a healthy appetite who suddenly loses interest in eating. This may be the dog who usually cleans his bowl and asks for more but now just eats only 50 to 75 percent. Or the pet may just leave a couple of bites, which he previously never did.

Sometimes the pet may still be interested in eating tempting treats, but overall his appetite is decreased. It is more obvious if your pet does not even touch his most favorite treat.

It is very important to have your veterinarian examine your pet if you note any change in appetite to make sure he does not have any underlying problem. A change in appetite can be a sign of any number of diseases and medical conditions.

Decreased Interest and Activity Level

If you notice that your pet spends an increased amount of time sleeping or just lying around compared to his previous daily activities, this is something to take note of. If your pet normally has a tendency to follow you around the house and now suddenly doesn’t even lift his head to look at you as you walk out of the room or house, this may also be a notable sign.

Decreased overall activity is much easier to spot in a younger pet who tends be more active compared to an older pet. Some pets will slow down as they get older due to normal aging but should not need too much encouragement from the owner to interact with them in some manner.

An example could be picking up the leash and having to call your dog three or four times to come, so you can take him for a walk. Instead of racing right over to you, your dog may take his time approaching you.

A cat who is usually very excited about chasing a ball or feather toy may seem to lose interest in the toy. You may have to toss the ball or wave the feather around for several minutes before your cat appears interested. And the interest level may vary from a slow approach to not even approaching at all but merely watching you play with the toy from afar.

No matter what the age, these changes can vary from gradual to sudden in onset.

Decreased Interactions

Pets with depression may not even greet their owners when they come home, as they used to do in the past. Your pet may want to sleep on his bed all day or curl up in a corner of another room away from you or the rest of the family. Or a previously very sociable animal won’t even greet family members or visitors when they enter the house.

What Can You Do to Help ?

If your pet has been diagnosed with depression, there are a few things that you can get started on at home:

Provide more structure for your pet. Maintain him on a daily schedule of predictable and enjoyable activities and interactions. Some pets appear to be less anxious when there is a daily routine an owner follows.

Try to encourage your pet to engage in activities he previously appeared to enjoy. Don’t give up just because your pet needs more enticement to participate in these activities.

Do something new. Consider taking your dog on a walk in a new neighborhood or park or on a car ride to a new location to pique his interest. Novel toys and toys that offer different sounds or smells, such as catnip, mint or rosemary, can all be very stimulating to certain cats.

Be more hands-on. Interacting with your pet by physically touching him or talking to him can be helpful.

Work on some of the basic training exercises your pet already knows. You can use new food rewards or interesting smells to mentally stimulate your pet. This will help keep him mentally engaged. Avoid any situations in which your pet appears fearful or stressed.

In certain cases, just as in people, our pets may also need some pharmaceutical intervention to help manage their depression. Your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may also recommend this option for your pet.

By Wailani Sung, DVM
As one of 62 board-certified veterinary behaviorists in the United States, Dr. Wailani Sung has a passion for helping owners prevent or effectively manage behavior problems in companion animals. At All Creatures Behavior Counseling in Kirkland, Wa., she focuses exclusively on treating behavior problems in dogs, cats and birds. Dr. Sung also works frequently with animal shelters to create treatment protocols for animals with behavioral problems so those animals can be successfully adopted.

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