6 Things You Can Do To Help a Depressed Dog
Just the thought of your four-legged friend coping with depression is heartbreaking, isn’t it? The truth is, depression for dogs is as real and powerful as it can be for humans, affecting their moods, their eating habits, their energy levels, and their physical health in the process.
Noticing any of these changes in their day-to-day demeanor is cause for bringing them to a veterinarian, and of course, you won’t always know for certain that your dog is dealing with depression until a professional can diagnose them. But how in the world can we, their loving owners, help our dogs climb through depression? Is it just a matter of asking the vet for prescription drugs to help, a change in diet, or getting a little bit of exercise — the most basic recommendations people get from doctors when diagnosed with depression? Does extra attention and care actually help? Is it our fault if our dog is depressed or struggles with anxiety?
You’ll actually find that there are some simple steps and measures dog owners can take to help alleviate some of the painful symptoms of depression for dogs.
"It’s important to understand that these possible signs of depression could also be the sign of pain or larger health concern," says Erin Askeland, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, animal health and behavior consultant at Camp Bow Wow. "Always contact your vet if you notice a change in your dog’s normal behavior," she says.
1. Remember, It’s YOUR Dog
You likely know your pup better than anyone. Remember this fact and let it instill confidence that you’re probably not imagining changes in their behavior, their energy, their eating habits, and so on. The following symptoms can sometimes be signs of other illnesses or health challenges, maybe even injuries, but being the person who cares for them daily means you’ll have a greater awareness of any little change in their personality or body language than anybody else. Don’t second guess your intuition.
2. Recognize Abnormal Disobedience
It’s easy to get frustrated with our dogs when they act out, disciplining and scolding them for mishaps and disobedience. Again, you’ll be the best judge of when their disobedience isn’t just casually or temporarily acting out.
“Anxiety and depression are part of the same mental health spectrum, and can show a variety of symptoms," says Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna, DVM, a veterinarian, and senior manager of veterinary outreach at PetSmart Charities."These symptoms may include abnormal vocalization, such as crying or whining when a human is not around, or destructive behavior.”
This is when your disciplinary responses should be made with depression and anxiety in mind. Disciplining your dog when they disobey is sometimes an appropriate part of their socialization, while scolding them when their outbursts are a symptom of depression may harm their mental health even more.
3. Keep Playing
"Create games within the home that can bring more pep to their step,” says Jeff Franklin, a certified professional dog trainer, and owner of Cobra Canine, who works directly with dogs with behavior issues. "A game of ‘Hide the Treat’ is often a great way to get them moving if they are still interested in treats," he says.
This same focus on keeping them active, engaged, and entertained. Getting your dog outside, tiring them out with extra long walks and a little bit of exercise has the same positive impact on their mental health as it does our own.
"Extra endorphins help us, as well as our four-legged friends, to feel better," Franklin says.
4. Get Them Off the Leash
Spending extra time outside obviously means your dog will be on a leash quite a bit. And sure, they’re used to this, but imagine the joyful break from the norm when you suddenly unlock that leash and your pup gets a chance to run free. Knowing when and where to take your dog where they can run leashless can be a very useful tool for you.
"Off-leash dog hikes during not-so-hot times of the day where a dog has the freedom to run around and go where their nose takes them are an ideal way to cure depression," says Alexandra Bassett, CPDT-KA, lead trainer and behavior specialist at Dog Savvy Los Angeles. "because the freedom to move about naturally and 'just be a dog' helps them to feel good."
5. Surround Them With Other Dog Friends
We all know some dogs just don’t like other dogs — or at least they don’t engage with them well. But for the most part, many dogs can benefit from regular, healthy interaction with other canines. Places like dog parks, where countless four-legged animals run rampant, can be overwhelming for a dog already coping with depression or anxiety. Engaging with dogs they are familiar with, however, can be less threatening or mysterious to them.
"Some dogs are happy to just interact with humans, but others need regular contact with their own kind,” says Basset. "It's a good idea for dog guardians to take their dogs on regular play dates with their friends' or family's dogs," she says, "whose behavior is somewhat predictable and with whom their dog can safely interact.”
6. Don’t Let Them Be Lonely
Loneliness does not automatically trigger depression, but it certainly can be a major influence on dogs in multiple-pet households or big families. If another pet or a member of the family is suddenly gone, either due to death or something like a teenager heading off to college, for example, many dogs will certainly notice that major change and feel a rush of loneliness.
This is when something like doggy daycare is incredibly helpful, or just having the occasional midday dog walker come to keep them company while you’re out at work. Dogs with separation anxiety tend to act out when they are left alone, being destructive around the home as a result. Simply making sure they aren’t lonely and are regularly engaged with the company of other dogs and people can go a long way in alleviating this.