Dogs are capable of a far greater range of emotions than most owners have ever imagined – and that could even stretch to a canine version of depression. If you think your dog is feeling down, find out how to keep them emotionally and mentally healthy and happy.
It may surprise you to learn that dogs can suffer from a type of depression – and even more so that it may be more common in the long dark winter months.
If you worry that your dog seems sad or low, read our guide to find out the potential causes and dog depression symptoms – and discover how to make your dog happy again.
What causes ‘dog depression’?
There are many factors that can impact on a dog’s emotional state – these include changes to routine, environment, social group, or as a result of chronic stress or anxiety resulting from fears and phobias or lifestyle. Some of these can produce what looks like a canine version of depression but so often owners don’t recognise the change in their dog’s mood – or know they can do some very simple things to transform their dog’s life for the better and make ‘dog depression’ a thing of the past.
Most dogs like routine and are happiest when they know and are confident in their environment. Dramatic changes such as house moves, building work or major home re-organisations can leave your dog feeling uncertain, and you may well see changes in their personality or behaviour as they try to process the changes and regain their routine and feelings of safety.
Dogs fit into our lives so well because they bond very strongly to us. Most dogs will bond to their entire perceived ‘family’ and changes to this social dynamic can strongly affect dogs.
This could be changes in the home as a result of divorce, bereavement (human, canine and sometimes even feline), children leaving home – or even a change in working patterns. Dogs don’t understand where their friend or loved one has gone and of course we can’t explain it to them.
It’s not just grief that can affect a dog’s mood however. If you are suddenly less available to your dog – such as returning to work after a break or starting a new job – it can hit them hard. They rely on you totally for company, security and love, and can feel your increased absence keenly.
It’s easy to only pay attention to dogs in the few short hours a day we are exercising them but for many dogs that means upwards of 12 waking hours a day, every day with absolutely nothing to do! For dogs – especially working breeds or types – this can produce severe boredom which can result in all kinds of behaviour problems, but one of these is apparent dog depression.
Often what looks like dog depression is a symptom of an underlying behaviour issue. Even though they are not showing any acute or obvious signs of fear, a dog who suffers from noise phobias or separation related issues for example can be in a chronic state of stress or anxiety always waiting for the next bang or the next time they are left home alone. Want to find out more about helping a scared dog? Read our guide.
During the winter however, there can be some more usual – or more likely – causes of a dog’s apparent sadness. This may be similar to the human version - Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – or far more likely can be due the changes in the dog’s routine.
Our dogs have certain hard-wired needs that we have to be able to fulfil to keep them healthy and happy. A major one of these is exercise and stimulation – physical and mental. Not only that but they need the right kind of exercise, and this can often be breed or type dependent.
Through the winter – especially the long, wet winters we have been seeing in recent years – it can be hard to give dogs the exercise they need. Dark mornings and evenings, and muddy, wet walks, can make taking the dog out seem like a chore for many rather than a joy and so many dogs are getting less exercise or fewer walks than usual, and aren’t getting to do the things they truly love.
In other cases, owners don’t realise just how much exercise their dog needs – or what types of things will keep them happy. All dogs are different and so finding out what fulfils a dog’s hard-wired needs can be the key to a contented dog. It’s similar to someone who loves nothing more than doing yoga being forced to only do marathon running! Yes, you’d be getting the exercise you need but you wouldn’t be enjoying it and would probably be feeling pretty fed up about it!
A lack of being able to do the things they have been selectively bred to do – or just the things that they love – can result in a whole host of behaviour problems, some of which will present a lot like dog depression symptoms.
All dogs should have some training so that they can have the freedom they need to be able to be let off the lead where it is safe to do so, and so they are not a nuisance or danger to themselves or others. How you train your dog – and how you relate to them day-to-day – will have an impact on their mood.
Reward-based training methods and handling improve the bond between a dog and their owner – but heavy-handed methods that rely on punishment can leave the dog feeling unable to succeed, result in a loss of confidence in their owner, and produce a state of learned helplessness which looks a lot like a dog being quiet and well-behaved but is actually in indicator of a very low mood state and chronic stress where it is far safer to do nothing.
Low mood states don’t only have mental and emotional causes at their root. Some physical conditions – especially those which cause pain – can affect a dog’s mood, and whenever there are sudden changes in a dog’s personality or behaviour the first step should be a visit to the vet to check there are no clinical causes.
Like us, all dogs are different. Some are by nature bouncy and very obviously happy all the time, while others are more reserved and self-contained but are no less contented. Know your own dog – and do some research on what things they may enjoy to enhance their life and their mood – but also be aware of what their usual (resting) mood state is.
Signs of dog depression
- Withdrawn – the dog may have little enthusiasm for exercise or games or joining in with the things they normally enjoy
- Lethargic – they may be sleeping more than usual
- Loss of appetite - they may lose interest in food or there may be changes to eating patterns
- Inability to settle – the dog may appear restless, not sleeping well or deeply or other changes to sleeping patterns
- Behaviour changes – the same mood states that can present as apparent dog depression can present as other issues depending on the dog’s personality. These can include chewing, attempts at escapology, increased reactivity, loss of toilet training, and even aggression.
What should I do about dog depression?
Recognising the problem is the first step to solving it. Then do a canine mental health assessment on your dog:
- Has anything changed in your dog’s life, environment or social group?
- Is your dog getting as much exercise and stimulation as usual?
- Is your dog getting the right sort of exercise and stimulation to give them an outlet for their hard-wired needs and the things they love?
- Is your dog getting as much contact with you as usual?
- Are you spending enough quality time with your dog? This may be exercise, games, training, dog sports or just hanging out together.
- Is your dog bored? Can you relieve this with an additional walk, short training sessions throughout the day, occasional games, interactive toys, etc?
- Does your dog have any other behavioural issues – especially fears and phobias that may be more prevalent for any reason?
Once you have done this check, you should have a clear idea of what your dog needs from you to lift their mood – and find ways to do this. If you are unable to make the changes (such as in the case of house moves etc) be aware that your dog is struggling and give them more TLC than usual and lots of fun things to do to distract them and support them through the changes.
When to seek help for dog depression?
If your dog’s mood or behaviour has changed suddenly and you can find no reason why this may be happening, visit your vet to check for clinical causes.
Once your dog has a clean bill of health, consult an accredited experienced behaviourist who can look at any behavioural changes or issues, and help you transform your dog’s mood and life for the better.