Pets enrich our lives in many ways, and they can help us overcome feelings of loneliness and depression. But is it possible for pets to become depressed themselves?  Just like us, animals have feelings and moods, and these can lead to them having good and bad days, just as we do. Pets can also become depressed. The symptoms can be similar to those that affect humans, and it may be more common than we think.


What’s depression and what causes it?

It was once thought that animals didn’t suffer depression, but research in recent years indicates that they do, and it can span a wide range of severity, from brief periods of low mood, to longer and more intense stretches of depression. Also, it is evident that the hormonal changes that depressed humans experience also affect animals, such as higher secretion of steroid hormones and depressed immune system function.


Depression can occur for a variety of reasons ranging from a change to routine, through to more complex reasons such as chemical imbalances. Being left alone for long periods can trigger depression in some animals, and dogs appear to be more susceptible, due to their being pack animals that prefer company. A change of schedule, such as someone who’s been at home with them leaving to start school or a job, could also be a factor.


Significant changes can lead to depression. Changes to the members of a household, such as the addition of another pet, baby, or a new partner, could be a cause. Moving home is another major change that could trigger it. Two common causes are the loss of an owner, or a companion such as another pet.


It is also possible that depressed animals are responding to the emotions of others in their home. They are sensitive to our feelings and emotions, therefore the grief of others in their home when there has been a death for example, could cause them to feel depressed.


Another factor that may contribute to depression is a change in the amount of attention or affection pets are receiving. The focus of people who are normally attentive towards them may have changed, and this can be a stressful situation that can cause them to feel depressed.


Like us, chemical imbalances can also cause animals to become depressed, and certain illnesses can cause it. It is therefore important that pets appearing to be depressed are checked by their vet.


Symptoms of pet depression

As with humans, animals can react in several different ways to depression. A change in ordinary behaviours is something to watch for, and a pet who is normally calm becoming anxious, or an active pet becoming lethargic, could be signs that something’s wrong. Animals manifest numerous signs that are characteristic of depressed humans, such as being withdrawn, sleeping excessively, and taking less interest in grooming, and owners and those closest to them will usually be able to detect the signals.


Inquisitive pets who like to explore but have lost their interest in it, or those who start hiding under the bed for lengthy periods, could be suffering depression. Potential signs to look for also include:

  • General lethargy and loss of initiative

  • A reduced interest in personal hygiene or the use of litter boxes

  • Excessive grooming

  • Loss of appetite

Other signs that may be less obvious include aggression, destructive behaviour, and anxiety.


Diagnosis and treatment

Since they can’t talk, it can be difficult to diagnose depression in animals. Observations of behaviour and apparent mood are necessary, and if you suspect that your pet could be depressed, it will need to be diagnosed by your vet. A physical examination, blood analysis, and x-rays may be required to assist with diagnosis, and as a starting point your vet will need to rule out illness. Your vet will prescribe treatment according to the cause and the severity of the depression.


Therapy may include increasing activity and stimulation, particularly if your pet is suffering from grief. Increased mental stimulation, and plenty of exercise, can be important factors for recovery. Regular playtime with people and other animals, can help animals suffering from loneliness or loss, and adopting another pet for company could be a solution but is something that you should discuss with your vet. Every pet requires a significant commitment of time and care, and there’s the risk that a new pet could compound existing issues.


Socialisation with other animals can be helpful, particularly for dogs, and parks and dog exercise areas can provide the opportunity for them to mingle. Behavioural training courses and doggy day-care, can also provide opportunities to create focus, provide companionship, and increase mental stimulation.


Depression caused by chemical imbalances may be treated differently, and your vet might prescribe anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication. Pet owners who prefer more holistic or naturopathic approaches involving herbal supplements for example, should discuss them with their vet.  Medication should never be given to an animal without first checking with a vet, and human medications should not be given to pets.


Is depression preventable?

Depression has various types and causes, therefore it’s difficult to prevent. Being aware of the potential triggers and knowing what to look for, can help you to identify warning signs early and deal with them before they become serious issues. Things such as, avoiding sudden changes to a pet’s circumstances and living arrangements, and easing them gently into a new routine, may help to avoid the onset of low mood and depression. Give pets consistent and appropriate attention, opportunities for exercise and stimulation, and respect their need for space when necessary.


Involve them in activities with your family and friends when possible and practical, and when planning changes to home life and family, consider how they will be affected. Their physical health is of paramount importance of course, therefore it is essential to maintain regular veterinary check-ups and care. Physical and mental health are interdependent for us as well as our pets.


There’s nothing quite as heart-warming as watching our pets play and have fun, oblivious to the outside world. If you’re concerned that your pet’s losing their zest for life, call us to make an appointment. We’ll work through the potential causes with you, and make sure that it’s not due to some other underlying health reason, and then develop a plan to help put the spring back in their step!