Did you know that pets can suffer from depression?
Though the idea of a seriously depressed dog or cat may seem a bit odd, pet depression is a very real condition that can turn a happy and vivacious critter into a mopey and apathetic one. We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about keeping our pets physically healthy, but mental health is extremely important, too. So, let’s take a moment to discuss depression in pets: how to spot it, what causes it, and how you can help your furry friend get back to her old self.
Know the Signs
Most pet parents have at least a vague idea of what constitutes normal conduct for their companion animal. Everyone is entitled to the occasional “off” day, and that includes our pets. However, if Fluffy’s regular personality seems to fade away and she starts to exhibit the following behaviors on a regular basis, the matter might be worth investigating:
- A change in appetite, especially if it leads to unusual weight loss or weight gain.
- Excessive sleepiness.
- Loss of interest in things that she used to enjoy. This may manifest as her ignoring her toys, being reluctant to play, or resisting opportunities to get some exercise.
- Excessive chewing or paw-licking.
- Avoiding people and/or hiding when she used to be outgoing and friendly.
Cats, specifically, may also become uncharacteristically aggressive or stop grooming themselves.
Please note that the red flags we just listed can actually be symptoms of a variety of illnesses. If you suspect that something is wrong with your pet, take him to the vet as soon as you can! The vet may confirm that Snowball’s problems are completely emotional…or they may discover that he’s developed diabetes!
Get to the Root of the Problem
Here are some environmental factors that can contribute to depression in pets:
- Boredom / lack of mental stimulation – Imagine that you didn’t have a job or any real responsibilities. You’d have a lot of free time, right? But what if, instead of being able to fill those hours with hobbies, errands, or social outings, you were forced to just stay home all day, every day. No TV, no internet, no books—all you really had to occupy your time was sleeping, looking out the window, and waiting for your family to come home. How long would it take for you to get bored out of your mind and become melancholy? Well, just like how humans have an innate need to do something with their lives, pets also need outlets for their energy and curiosity.
- A sudden, significant change in routine – This can include (but is certainly not limited to) gaining a new addition to the family, moving to a different house or apartment, or their owner starting a new job that keeps them away from home more often. While some pets don’t mind (or are even excited) by these changes, others can find them stressful or upsetting.
- The death of an owner or friend – Animal behaviorists are still a bit iffy about whether or not pets really “grieve” the way humans do; it’s entirely possible that animals (especially dogs, who are known for their empathy) simply respond to the sadness or pain of the people around them, and humans mistakenly see this as the pet grieving on their own accord. That said, if the death of a friend or owner means that the animal suddenly stops receiving the same attention, affection, or companionship that they’ve grown accustomed to, it can definitely make them feel more than a little bit “blue.” The death of an owner can also sometimes lead to a pet being rehomed, and as we discussed in the previous paragraph, that can be very distressing for the animal.
How to Deal
So, let’s say that your dog or cat is looking pretty down in the dumps, and he has been for a while. What’s a pet parent to do?
- Go have fun. If Spot’s idea of a great time is to go for a ride in the car, then take him on more car rides. If Lily loves to socialize with other pooches at the dog park, make time to go there before or after work a few times a week. And if Buster lives to eat, then introduce some brand-new gourmet treats or edible chew toys to shake up his normal food routine. Simply put, if your pet is depressed, take some time to remind him of his favorite things in life!
- Bring out her inner huntress. Cats are much safer staying indoors all the time instead of going outside, but “comfort” with their safe, cushy lifestyle can turn to “ennui” very easily. One possible solution for this issue is to do things that utilize your cat’s natural instincts to hunt and explore. Putting up a bird or squirrel feeder outside of her favorite window will allow her to watch neighborhood critters as they visit your yard, and keeping some cat-friendly plants around the house (like catnip or Boston fern) will give her a chance to sample some greenery without stepping a paw outside. Hiding treats or bits of dry food around the house can be the start of a treasure hunt. Acquiring some toys that are easy to toss, have an interesting aroma, or make an unusual noise when she plays with them will give her “prey” to stalk and catch. And finally, when all else fails, get your hands on a cheap laser pointer. Chances are, your cat will go ballistic trying to catch the red dot!
- Praise happiness, not moping. It’s very important that you don’t inadvertently reinforce your pet’s gloomy mood by giving her praise or rewards when she’s in a funk. Instead, wait until your pet has cheered up a bit (so, after you’ve tried any of the listed suggestions and found some success!) and then tell her what a good girl she is. Your pet will understand that being exuberant and full of life is a good thing, one that earns her rewards. Plus, knowing that she’s made you happy will often improve her mood even more.
- Consult with a professional (again). If you’ve tried all of the above ideas and nothing seems to lift your pet’s spirits, it’s probably a good idea to talk to your veterinarian again and voice your concerns. If medical help is available, why not take advantage of it?
The vast majority of pet parents really do want their animals to be healthy and happy. So, in addition to feeding your pet a healthy, all-natural diet, keep an eye out for signs of depression. Your pet will thank you, even if it’s in the form of boundless energy or contented cuddles!