Dogs are our best friends, they’re always there to comfort us and put a smile on our face, but how can we reciprocate these attentions when they’re the ones feeling down?
While dogs’ mental health is not really a popular concern, a study from Gregory Bernsa neuroscientist at Emory University, discovered that dogs do have feelings just like humans, and their sensors are in the same part of the brain as humans’.
This means that dogs, although they don’t typically experience what we recognize as clinical depression in humans, they can also feel depression and sadness. So how can we return the favor and help them feel better?
Newsweek spoke to veterinarians to find out what the symptoms of dogs’ mental health struggles are, and how their humans can help them out of it.
Why is dogs’ mental health important?
Mental health plays a huge role in a dog’s quality of life, and experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety can harm their overall health, as well as yours, and can pose safety concerns to other people and other pets around your dog.
Pets who do suffer from mental health struggles, according to Dr, Yvette Marshall DVM at Hollow Corners Veterinary Services, can be destructive, reactive and fearful and need to be helped.
How do you know when your dog is suffering from mental health issues?
Dr. Sylvalyn Hammond, DVM and Spokesperson for Zesty Paws, told Newsweek that signs of mental health issues in dogs are surprisingly similar to those of humans, and just like us when they’re depressed they will show changes in their behavior.
“A once playful and energetic dog suddenly becomes disinterested, listless, withdrawn, or inactive. Sometimes changes in eating and sleeping habits are also noticed,” she said.
How to boost their mental wellbeing?
According to Hammond, most pets will bounce back from tips of depression or anxiety within a few days or weeks without any help at all, while others may require some help from their owners.
She doing suggests a little more of the activities that your dog normally enjoys doing, like fetch or swimming, and increasing exercise and time outdoors. She also recommends reinforcing positive behavior, rewarding good behavior with treats, food, or supplements.
Socializing with other pets can help some dogs, she added, especially those who are mourning the loss of another canine companion. “Playing with other dogs is a good way to help your dog exercise and forget about their current worries.”
Dogs’ behavioral and mental wellness involves exercise, enrichment, health and communication, says Marshall adding that agility courses and walks are very important, even if you have a large yard, because there just isn’t enough mental stimulation in hanging out there compared to going for a walk.
Enrichment, says Marshall, helps stimulate the brain and includes puzzles and games. “People can hide treats and toys around the house or yard and challenge the dog to find it and retrieve the item.”
What should you avoid doing?
Dogs are very empathic animals and can take on our emotions pretty quickly, so you should avoid projecting your own feelings onto your pet.
Until 2019 study carried out by scientists in Sweden, which looked at the concentration of long-term stress hormones in humans and their pets, found out that dogs had similar stress levels as their owners.
“They tend to pick up negative feelings their owners are projecting and it can manifest as depression and loss of appetite. They can be very sensitive to feelings of anxiety and anger,” said Marshall.
Even though you should always give your pet loveif you’re concerned about their mental health and are witnessing concerning behaviors, you should avoid overly doting on a sulky pet with attention and treats, otherwise, Hammond pointed out, they might come to believe you are encouraging and rewarding that behavior.
What are the main reasons that cause dogs stress?
The main causes of stress in a dog, Marshall says, are lack of exercise, lack of stimulation and training, as well as no outlet for energy and lack of socialization. Puppies, she added, should be exposed to other dogs, people, noises and different environments.
But the above mentioned reasons are not the only possible causes, any change in a dog’s normal daily routine can also cause them stress and depression.
According to Hammond, events like moving to a new home, a new pet or person joining the household, the loss of a pet or human family member, a change in the owner’s work schedule, are all common causes of depression and anxiety in pets.
How do you know when it’s time to be seen by a dog behavior specialist or a veterinarian?
Mental health issues can become harder to treat if left ignored for too long, and if your pet hasn’t bounced back from their depression or anxiety in a few weeks, you should speak to a behavior specialist or a veterinarian, according to Hammond.
“Veterinarians can prescribe medications that can help your pet overcome mental health issues and improve their quality of life,” she added.
Symptoms of dogs’ depression and physical illness can be very similar, so It’s crucial to have a veterinary exam your dog and possibly perform some blood work first to rule out any potentially serious medical health issues.