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Today's Family Magazine

Doggie depression – ­ here's why they get depressed and what you can do to help them

By Kimberly Blaker

As most dog owners will attest, dogs do feel a range of emotions.  They may not experience sadness quite the same as humans because dogs lack self-consciousness.  But they can experience anxiety and depression, says Dr. Carlo Siracusa at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in "Do Dogs Feel Sadness?" by Kate Hughes.

The development of dogs' emotions is equivalent to that of a two or two-and-a-half-year-old child, according to researchers.  So the sadness they experience is less complex than that in human adults.  For example, human adults can feel sad or depressed as a result of ruminating about their failures, imperfections, or something they did or didn't do.  Since dogs, like very young children, lack self-consciousness, they don't experience this type of sadness.  Nonetheless, dogs can experience sadness or get depressed for a variety of other reasons.

Causes of depression in dogs
Because dogs are social animals, receiving a lack of attention, or being left alone for long periods can affect their mental health.  When dogs are confined to a crate or bathroom for extended hours, it can lead to depression.  So allow your dog to spend as much time with family as possible.

Similarly, a lack of exercise can also cause depression.  This can be particularly problematic for pets that are crated or confined to small areas for many hours at a time.  While crate training for puppies is beneficial for housebreaking, they should never be crated for more than four hours at a time without an extended break.

Once your puppy is housebroken, a crate can provide a cozy spot for your dog with the crate left open. But dogs need companionship, exercise, and stimulation, which they cannot experience in a crate.  So as your dog grows, limit confinement and when it is necessary, preferably to a larger room.

Also, find out how much and what types of exercise are appropriate for your dog's breed and age, and make sure your dog regularly gets the exercise it needs.

Another cause of depression in dogs is when a family member is depressed.  Recent studies have found dogs recognize human emotions. In May 2012, a study was published in the Animal Cognition journal.  The study found dogs responded more strongly when people were crying as opposed to talking or humming. In this case, the best remedy may be to get treatment for yourself or the depressed family member, which should alleviate your dog's sadness.

Dogs also experience depression when they lose a family member, whether it's another pet or human companion.  Sometimes dogs improve if a new pet is introduced, but not always.  When a dog loses its owner, this can be particularly devastating.

An interesting 2013 study was reported by CBS News online, in "Study: Dogs bond with owners similar to babies with parents."  Researchers observed that the "secure base effect" phenomenon that's experienced by babies also occurs in dogs.  Like babies, dogs are more likely to interact with things and other people when they feel the secure presence of their caregivers.  If your dog has lost a beloved family member or caregiver, those closest to your dog should intervene and give it extra love and attention.

Another cause of depression in dogs is punishment.  Animal behaviorists say when dogs are repeatedly punished with shock collars or other physical means, dogs come to feel helpless.  Not only can it cause aggression in dogs, but it can also cause dogs to withdraw.  The best method for training dogs is with rewards for positive behavior.  This is not only better for their emotional health, but it's also more effective.

Finally, certain medical conditions, such as thyroid problems can cause depression.  If your dog is depressed, and especially if there's no apparent reason for it, have your dog checked out by your veterinarian.

Signs your dog is depressed

The most common symptoms of dog depression are similar to those in humans.  They include:
  • Sleeping more than usual.
  • Withdrawal or hiding.
  • Loss of interest in food.
  • Loss of interest in things it previously enjoyed, or inactivity.
  • Excessive licking, particularly of their paws.
  • Self-mutilation (in more severe cases, often related to separation) anxiety.
What to do if your dog is depressed
First, if you suspect any of the reasons above is causing your dog's depression, try to remedy the situation that's causing it.  This will often resolve your dog's sadness. But if your dog doesn't improve, an antidepressant can help, particularly in anxious dogs.  Dogs are prescribed many of the same antidepressants as humans.  But always talk with your veterinarian before giving one to your dog.