Tails of a Dog Therapist – Episode Thirty Six

A lot of the enquiries I receive are to help dogs who are showing signs of what can only be described as clinical depression.

If you google depression in dogs you’ll find studies on how dogs can help humans with their depression or articles written about canine depression. It’s great that we’re starting to acknowledge and study these things, but there’s something that really bothers me in all of the ones I have read through…… the dogs emotional state is always portrayed as less important than a humans and in the case of some of the studies it’s not taken into consideration at all.

Dogs are highly emotional animals and they feel all of the same things that we do, so it makes sense that they would suffer with depression as well. There are several reasons that your dog could become depressed.

1. Owners Emotional State – Dogs have the biggest heart per body mass of any living animal with it taking up 0.8% of their body rather than 0.6% like other animals. The heart sends out an electromagnetic field which contains certain information or coding which is affected by different emotions. When our dogs’ electromagnetic field mixes with ours, they can pick up on exactly how we feel at that moment in time and our emotional state will have a massive impact on them. This is the reason that a dog seems guilty or ashamed when we get home and they have done something wrong in the house. It’s not because they know they’ve done wrong it’s because they can feel your anger, frustration or disappointment and they’re reacting to it. In the same way if a dog is living in a home with one or more person who has anxiety or depression then this can affect the dogs emotional state and they tend to mirror their guardians emotional state. 

2. Changes in Routine – Dogs are very sensitive to changes in their daily routine. If you have ever had set walk or mealtimes and then tried to change them then you will understand. So when routine’s change and they are no longer able to do things that they would normally do it can cause them to become depressed.

When Jess was diagnosed with cancer, one of the major things that we had to accommodate was her new eating habits. She had to eat little and often instead of having her main set meal times and to start with that was a bit difficult to factor into our lifestyle.

Kev has always taken her and Molly pretty much everywhere he goes, so to start with we decided that the easiest way to do things would be for him to just take her out and leave Molly at home. This way he could have her food down all day long without risking anybody else eating it, something that I couldn’t do at home without shutting her away on her own because of all of the other dogs.

Within a week of her being left at home Molly started to show obvious signs of depression. She completely stopped eating, she stopped wanting to play and just lay staring out of the window all day. If I went near her and tried to do anything with her she would growl and she would snap at any of the other dogs if they even walked past her. Luckily I knew exactly what was happening and we sorted out other arrangements regarding the food so that she could start to go out again and almost instantly her mood and behaviour returned to normal.

3. Home or Family Changes – Moving home or welcoming a new baby or pet to the family can cause a whole myriad of emotions for everyone involved. As stated above dogs will pick up on the stress and anxiety within the family and will respond to it or mirror it back to us. These major life changes can also cause us to change our dogs’ routines and can again cause the issues above.

4. Grief – I’ve said many times before that dogs experience grief as well, it is well known that dogs can grieve for past guardians and also past canine companions and this grief can cause them to display signs of depression.

5. Being Rehomed – Dogs are renowned for showing signs of depression in rescue centres but they can also show signs of it when they get to a new home. This is due to one or more of the above reasons.

Dogs also suffer from seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder. This can occur based on the actual seasons but also on different stressful events that happen in the year, such as firework season or Christmas.

Just as with humans, dogs can become more depressed in the winter months when the days are shorter and the weather is worse. This is because we tend to walk them less or for shorter periods of time and spending time outside in a natural environment is crucial to our dogs’ mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. We live in a world where everything is either concrete or artificial in order to make our lives easier and more comfortable but this isn’t beneficial to our dogs’ or our own health. Studies show that spending time in nature is an antidote for stress. It can lower our blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, reduce anxiety and improve mood, increase self esteem and enhance the function of our immune system. There is also scientific evidence that proves that reconnecting our bodies to the earth via a therapeutic technique known as grounding can realign our electrical energy and help with a variety of health conditions including depression. Dogs need this connection with the earth, allowing their paws to touch natural ground, rather than the tarmac or concrete paths or the artificial grass that we cover our gardens with nowadays, allows free electrons from the earth to spread over and into the body which in turn has an antioxidant effect.

In the winter we tend to give our dogs shorter walks or don’t take them to the open spaces as often because of the dark evenings. The longer walks in the woods or the fields are usually restricted to the weekends when they can be carried out in daylight hours, and we give them more road walks during the week, effectively reducing their connection to the earth and restricting their ability to ground and rebalance their bodies. This along with the change in routine and the lack of daylight is a contributing factor in our dogs becoming depressed.

The symptoms of canine depression are similar to the symptoms of human depression. They can become withdrawn, they can go off their food, they become inactive and tend to sleep more, they can become moody and just want to be left alone and very rarely participate in activities that they usually enjoy, regardless of how much you try to entice them. Obviously all of these symptoms could be signs of other medical conditions so it is always best to seek veterinary advice if your dogs’ behaviour suddenly changes.

Most dogs will bounce back from their bouts of depression with a bit of time and some extra TLC. You can help them recover quicker by exercising them more, engaging with them and taking the time to do more of the things that they like. Just remember that the dogs will pick up on your emotional state so be careful not to react to the depressed behaviour too much. Trying to make them feel better or comforting them can actually make things worse because you’re emotional state will change and they will react to that and feel even worse.

So instead of reacting to their depressed behaviour, make sure you’re noticing the small amounts of happy behaviour like the slight wags of their tail or the happy moments on the walks and celebrate and encourage these instead.