Is My Dog Depressed? 11 Possible Reasons and What to Do About It
Dogs can become depressed just like people. Warning signs of canine depression include: changes to appetite, sleep, energy, vocalizing, paw licking or aggression. Depression can be related to grief, stress, pain, illness or energetic interactions with depressed people or environments. Help depressed dogs with diet, Reiki, herbs and activity.
When our senior dog passed away, our younger dog developed some behaviours that told us he was missing his brother terribly. After several weeks, his grief had turned into depression. He stopped sleeping in his usual spot and instead laid near the front window, searching for any signs that his big brother would come home. He developed separation anxiety and barked frantically when we stepped out of the house – even for a few seconds. He begged for food incessantly, and began reacting to other dogs with fear aggression. He whined, cried and began licking his paws. As we began to heal from the grief of losing our senior pet, our other dog did not.
“His grief turned into depression.”
Is My Dog Depressed?
Dogs with depression can experience the same signs as people do.
- Check to see if your dog has one or more warning signs of depression
- Determine what might be the root cause of your dog’s depression
- Cheer up your depressed dog with some simple at-home tips
11 Warning Signs That Your Dog Might be Depressed
Dogs who may be depressed will show unusual behaviours that may be more intense or last longer than a typical reaction to change or stress. Your dog may be depressed if he shows one or more of these warning signs.
If you’re wondering if your dog could be depressed, look for these signs:
1. Change in Appetite
Your dog may eat less – or more – leading to weight gain or loss. If your dog stops drinking water though, this can lead to dehydration and is potentially fatal.
Depressed dogs may withdraw from people and other animals. They might leave the room, spend more time outdoors or find a quiet space to isolate.
3. Low Energy
Perhaps your dog is listless, has low energy, or sleeps more. These can be signs of depression or another underlying health condition.
4. Not Engaging
Dogs may stop seeking attention from family, or ignore other animals and previous playmates. He may play for a short while and then stop. He may only interact when there is a treat or other form of attention.
5. Changes How He Reacts to Visitors
Your dog might stop running to the door to greet visitors, or no longer be interesting in looking out the window. In other cases, he may overreact to visitors, jumping and barking in a worried manner.
6. Becomes Nervous or Hides
Your dog starts to shake, cower or become agitated. Other signs include hiding in closets, under the bed or in other small spaces.
Your dog may stop wanting to go for walks, car rides or other previously enjoyable activities.
8. Licks his Paws
Excessive licking may be a sign of anxiety and a way to self-soothe. Paw licking may have other causes like allergies, bug bites, pain or injuries. Check for redness, rashes, ticks, fleas, long nails or broken glass/objects embedded in his paws.
9. Destructive Behaviour
New destructive behaviours such as chewing, digging or destroying items could be your dog’s way of telling you he’s sad.
Aggression is often related to fear. If your dog suddenly becomes aggressive to other animals or people, it is vital to understand why the aggression is happening. Act right away and consider consulting a canine behaviourist, energy practitioner or holistic vet to get to the roots of aggression.
Depressed dogs may vocalize more through whining, howling, moaning, crying and even yawning. Dogs express themselves through their voice as well as through non-verbal signs. Frequent sighs, cries, whines or howls may indicate your dog is sad (or that there’s an underlying physical concern).
Why Is My Dog Depressed?
If you suspect your beautiful Fur Soul is suffering with depression, the next step is to understand the reason why. Like us, dogs can become depressed for different reasons. Sometimes it’s due to a change, other times there’s a physical, emotional, energetic or spiritual reason. Before we can do something to cheer up a depressed dog, we need to know what is contributing to his sadness.
“Look for the root causes of depression. Address it – don’t suppress it.”
Top 9 Reasons a Dog May Be Depressed
Here are the most common reasons your dog may be depressed:
1. Major Changes
Like us, dogs can become distressed with adjusting to major life changes like:
- adding a new family member like a baby, senior or new pet
- being adopted (adoption is great, but can still be a stressful change)
- loss of a companion through divorce, death or leaving the home
- moving to a new house
- a stay-at-home pet parent returns to work outside the home
- children return to school after the summer (or after virtual learning)
- changes in weather – dogs are sensitive to atmospheric changes so areas that have big storms or significant temperature changes can affect a dog (just like some people with Seasonal Affective Disorder are affected by changing seasons)
Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to stress levels in the home. If there is tension or fighting in the household, dogs will absorb the stress. Stress releases stress hormones, causes inflammation, digestive changes and cellular damage. If dogs cannot transmute or release the stress, it will begin to change their energy centres, making way for depression or physical illness. Just like us, depression, anxiety and many chronic illnesses begin from prolonged exposure to stress.
Dogs may be depressed due to fear. A common source of fear is from a previous trauma (think about rescue dogs). Dogs can carry the energy of trauma deep in their cells. This cellular memory can be triggered and result in a fear response. Some dogs act out from fear through aggression, others withdraw to protect themselves. Both aggression and isolation can be signs of depression.
Whether fear is from a past trauma or a current situation, it can create a chronic stress response that can lead to depression. Consult an energy practitioner, canine herbalist or holistic vet to work with your dog’s stress hormones and behaviours. We don’t recommend negative “training” approaches like electric fences, choke collars, sprays or vocal/physical intimidation in most situations; using these with fearful dogs can be particularly harmful. Sometimes dogs will just give up instead of facing these fear-invoking situations.
4. Medical Conditions
Depression can develop due to poor health. Since depression can be a symptom of other health problems, it is crucial that any underlying health concerns are ruled out and treated by a holistic or conventional vet. Common conditions include: chronic pain, hypothyroidism, arthritis and gastrointestinal problems.
Dogs with thyroid disorders can show signs of depression. A sluggish thyroid can have many effects like low energy, weight gain, a sad expression or changes to skin and fur including hair loss and frequent hot spots.
If your dog is displaying these symptoms, ask your vet to check your dog’s thyroid levels. If your conventional vet tells you that the levels are “fine” and cannot offer any treatment, consider consulting a Holistic Vet who can introduce natural therapies to support the thyroid gland when thyroid functioning is weak but not bad enough to show as abnormalities in lab tests.
Certain breeds of dogs are more prone to hypothyroidism. These include:
- Golden Retrievers
- Doberman Pinschers
- Irish Setters
- Cocker Spaniels
- Miniature Schnauzers
Always look for reputable, certified breeders who insist on health clearances and conscientious breeding practices that reduce predisposition to illnesses like hypothyroidism.
Just like us, dogs who are in constant pain can become depressed. Common sources of discomfort include early joint pain, arthritis, digestive illness and dental disease. See your vet for a thorough physical assessment and history.
5. Poor Diet
A highly processed diet like kibble can lead to chronic inflammation, dehydration, changes to gut health, and cellular damage. In the long term, poor diets can even lead to allergies and autoimmune illnesses like auto-immune hypothyroidism. These are states of chronic stress that can lead to your dog becoming depressed.
Diet and Serotonin
Like humans, dogs make a neurotransmitter called serotonin that acts as a natural anti-depressant. The bulk of this “feel good” chemical is actually made in the gastrointestinal track (sometimes called the “second brain”), so gut health is extremely important. A processed diet can affect the type and amount of healthy bacteria in the gut, and your dog’s ability to make serotonin, leading to symptoms of depression.
6. Not Enough Exercise
Backyard runs are not enough for the majority of dogs. Most dogs benefit from at least one mile a day of walking – two or three times a day are better. High energy working dog breeds like huskies and border collies can turn walk time into a full job.
One of the top evidence-based lifestyle tips for dogs and humans with depression is exercise. Mild to moderate exercise:
- creates new cell growth in areas of the brain responsible for mood
- stimulates endorphins (“feel good” chemicals) responsible for a “runner’s high”
Most medications don’t directly cause depression, but they can set up your dog’s body to be less efficient at staying happy.
Although steroids can be a necessary medication for serious health issues, they come with numerous physical and behavioural side effects. Steroids like prednisone are used to decrease inflammation and suppress the immune system. They supplement natural sources of steroids from organs like the adrenal glands.
As many as 30% of dogs on steroids show behavioural changes such as:
- nervousness agitation
- trouble sleeping
- avoiding people and other animals and isolation
If your dog has been prescribed steroids, tell your vet about all behavioural changes. With short term use of these medications, your dog’s personality will almost always return to normal. Be aware that steroids can affect your dog’s natural steroid-producing adrenal glands, change their gut bacteria, increase risk of infections, increase need for water and even affect muscles. Talk to your holistic vet about alternates to steroids or ways to restore optimal health after steroid use.
Many dogs are prescribed antibiotics for a variety of infections, post-surgery care, hot spots, Lyme disease and other reasons. While antibiotics can be life saving, they aren’t overly sophisticated in the type of bacteria they kill. Antibiotics kill both harmful and helpful bacteria in a dog’s gut. And we know that a dog’s gut must be fully balanced in order to keep his body and mind healthy. More on your dog’s gut health in a bit.
With the restrictions related to the covid-19 pandemic , we have learned some hard lessons about the enormous impacts brought about from social isolation and lack of stimulation. Although our fur souls have largely benefited from stay-at-home families, they still can experience loneliness and anxiety or even depression. And as we leave our homes and re-integrate into our work and social circles, our dogs will be at a higher risk for depression, anxiety and psychological issues due to less frequent social interaction.
There are three things that contribute to loneliness:
- Spending time alone
- Extended time in crates or enclosed areas without access to nature
Fortunately, they are easy to address:
- Limit crate time. Dogs should not be crated against their will or for extended periods of time. If your dog needs to be in a crate for his safety or because he just loves it, ensure he is out for play time and exercise at least every four hours. Hire a dog walker, go to the dog park or drop him off at doggy day care.
- Ensure your dog has lots of stimulating activities. We love cookie balls, kongs and DogTV (if your dog must be crated, turn DogTV on at a low volume where he can see it.
9. Sensing Depression in Others
Depression is a very real and devastating illness that affects every aspect of the sufferer’s life. People living with depression can feel profoundly sad, unable to eat, sleep, work or care for themselves or their pets, and even become so hopeless that they consider suicide. If this describes you, please know that we care about you and urge you to reach out to a friend, physician, nurse or mental health hotline.
Depressed, anxious or grieving family members can have a significant impact on their dogs’s mental health.
Dogs can make a soothing animal companion and provide the unconditional love and acceptance that depressed people need. Having said that, dogs are also exquisitely sensitive and have been known to pick up or absorb physical and emotional energies of those around them. Common advice to dog owners that have fearful or aggressive dogs is to calm their own energies when introducing their dog to other dogs. Why? Because the dog will sense the owner’s fear, anxiety or aggression.
When a person shifts their energy, their dog’s emotional state will too.
Depressed, anxious or grieving family members can have a significant impact on their dogs’s mental health. Research tells us that there is a connection between a dog owner’s personality and mental health and the intensity of their dog’s behavioural issues. That is not to say that individuals with mental health struggles shouldn’t raise dogs – the opposite is actually true. We sometimes just need to treat both the dog and the pet parent for best results.
When we see dogs with depression or anxiety in our clinic (or virtually), we always ask whether there are household members suffering with mental illnesses. In many cases, there are. We can then work with the whole family to acknowledge unhealthy emotions and the effect they have on their dogs. It can be a powerful feedback loop to help both owners and their dogs.
How Can I Cheer Up My Depressed Dog?
While you are working with a canine healthcare specialist to correct underlying reasons for your dog’s depression, there are several things you can do at home to cheer up your beautiful fur soul.
13 Best Ways to Help Dogs with Depression
Once any underlying health conditions have been ruled out or treated, consider one or more of these ways to help your depressed dog. Some are simple and easy things you can do at-home; others may require working with a conventional or Holistic Vet, or other Dog Healthcare Specialist for guidance.
1. Stimulate His Senses
Stimulating your dog’s senses can tackle boredom, increase joy and improve self-confidence. Try new ways to interest him through stimulating his exquisite senses of hearing, smell, taste, touch and sight:
- Play classical music or Tibetan chants especially when you leave the house. Research identifies numerous benefits of music for depression, including: lowering stress hormones; conveying feelings of love and empathy and; helping the listener feel connected to others. Classical music such as Mozart, Bach or Debussy offers complex musical patterns that keep your dog’s mind (and ears) stimulated. Another option is soothing Tibetan chants, which can positively shift mood and even help heal emotional issues at an energetic level by balancing chakras. Avoid music with drums or a heavy beat and keep the volume low, as loud music can cause stress.
- Subscribe to DogTV. Keep your dog’s ears and eyes stimulated with this amazing dog-oriented TV channel! It uses colour, sound and images scientifically geared to what dogs love. It rotates between stimulation and relaxation sessions to balance your dog’s mind and energy. We love DogTV so much that we’ve given you a coupon code!
- Touch your dog. Use your hands to lovingly massage lonely pooches. Use gentle but firm kneading movements to work from head and lower extremities toward his heart centre. Brush him more frequently, check for ticks and fleas daily and offer cosy blankets and dog beds to offer comforting forms of touch. Take a course on dog massage to maximize the power of touch.
Encourage family, friends and neighbours to pet, hold paws and give extra ear scratches.
- Aromatherapy. Tickle your dog’s exquisite sense of smell through the gentle use of mood enhancing essential oils like lavender, bergamot, frankincense or cedar. It’s best to work with a canine aromatherapist. Always use pure organic essential oils, preferably in a diffuser. Keep scents faint – if you can smell it, it’s probably too strong for your dog. Always allow your dog to leave the area to go to a scent-free zone. Never apply essential oils to your dog or put it in his food. Never use toxic synthetic fragrances like room and air deodorizers.
- Make sure he has enough toys, including toys that challenge his mind and body, like a cookie ball, wiggle ball or self-launching tennis ball thrower.
2. Start a New Exercise Routine
Research clearly shows that increased physical activity has a positive effect on mood and is a popular clinical intervention for depression. Dogs are no exception and need plenty of exercise to live their best life.
- Try doing yoga or floor exercises, where your dog can “participate”
- Increase the number and variety of your walks. We do a morning “Sniff N’ Stroll” and an evening “Move It” walk for cardio and distance.
- Enrol in a dog obedience or agility class
3. Improve His Diet
A whole foods diet is always the cornerstone of good mental and physical health. Ensure your dog has natural unprocessed meat, organic vegetables, and mood-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics like goat milk or kefir. A healthy gut can support your dog’s ability to produce the right amount of “feel good” natural antidepressants. Check out our healing recipes for dogs here.
4. Try Healing Herbs
Antidepressant herbs such as St John’s wort and homeopathic remedies can be used under supervision of a canine herbalist or holistic vet/healthcare practitioner to support mood. In our clinic, we use herbs like chamomile, ashwagandha and CBD to calm your dog’s nervous system and offer Reiki to release the energetic sources of trauma and fear. Although herbs can take several weeks to see an effect, they can offer a natural, holistic way to improve your dog’s mental health, naturally. Check out our healing herbal cookie recipes.
Canadian residents can click here to order CBD oil for dogs.
5. Balance His Energies with Reiki
Reiki and other energy modalities can induce a profound level of relaxation and support your dog’s natural abilities to heal from depression. This is typically done through releasing trauma, reducing fear and balancing chakras to allow for the optimal functioning of associated organs, nerves and emotions. Book your consultation with our Animal Reiki Master here.
6. Behavior Modification
A canine or veterinary behaviourist can work with you and your dog to build a program that rewards dogs when they are happy. This helps your dog seek to shift his behaviours and increase “happy” rather than “depressed” behaviours. Like people, dogs benefit from re-wiring their brain circuitry to build strong, direct pathways to happiness.
7. Connect Your Dog with Nature
Sunshine, trees, plants, other critters and bird calls all resonate with a dog and bring him closer to his ancestral forms of happiness.
- Try camping, hiking or walks in forested areas (check out your local greenhouses or botanical gardens)
- Play nature sounds in the house
- Clear a window for your dog to look out into the yard. Hang bird feeders, plant trees, invite squirrels and place a dog bed in a sunny spot
- Take him for a car ride near a lake, forest or farmer’s field – with the window down
8. Build His Confidence
- Reward him when he shows happy behaviours so that he becomes more confident. Like us, sometimes we have to fake it till we make it
- Teach your dog new tricks or train to a new level like agility in group classes. Learning helps self-confidence and rewards happiness
9. Reduce Stress
Have a careful look at your home environment. Are there opportunities to practice stress management, mindfulness or meditation? Do you and your dog have the chance to leave tense situations by going to doggy day care or by having a fun run at a local off leash park?
10. Take Care of Your Own Mental Health
Pay attention to your own mental health.
- When you catch yourself feeling anxious or depressed, shift your mindset through breath work, vagus nerve exercises, mindfulness, positive thoughts, gratitude or meditation. See how your new mindset helps your dog.
- Communicate your feelings to your dog. Tell him that the struggles you are having are not his to take on. Remind him that he is perfect, joyful and tell him to allow depressed emotions to flow off him into the earth below.
11. Add Crystals to Your Home
- If you love healing crystals like we do, place crystals around your home that ground negative energies and attract joy such as black tourmaline, smokey quartz, citrine, rose quartz, clear quartz and tiger’s eye. Ensure they are out of reach to curious mouths. Alternatively, get a healing crystal pet charm to place on your dog’s collar.
12. Consider a Furry Companion
- Consider another pet. Although this is not the solution for all lonely dogs, some depressed dogs will cheer up with a buddy. Pets may take a long time to bond (even up to six months) and sometimes the friendship can be stressful, but in many cases a new dog goes a long way to alleviate loneliness and depression. Always make sure you have the time, money and resources to care for all pets
- Take him to doggy day care. Even once a week can bring joy, companionship and stimulation to your dog, without the commitment of adopting.
13. Pharmaceutical Antidepressants
Medications like amitriptyline or prozac can increase serotonin levels in some dogs, as a last resort. You may notice a difference after about 2 months, and dogs may be trialed off after 6-12 months of treatment. Always work closely with a vet, as these medications come with serious risks like serotonin syndrome.
How do I know if my dog is depressed or just having a normal reaction?
It’s normal for your dog to react to major changes like divorce, moves, loss or new family members. Your dog may show some concerning behaviours when his routine or stability is interrupted. However, you can usually pinpoint a specific event that led to those changes in your dog’s behaviours. The new behaviours typically run their course and go away in a short period of time. Your dog’s personality and signs of happiness return.
How Does a Dog Normally React to Change?
Whether it’s a new baby, divorce, death, moving homes or adding pets – most dogs take things in stride with only a few temporary changes to his behaviour.
Signs that your dog is reacting to change. He might:
- seem a bit nervous
- become restless
- appear out of sorts
- eat or drink less
- seek more attention
- vocalize more (bark, howl or whine)
- sleep more (or less)
- wander throughout the house or yard at unusual times e.g. during the night
- carry around an object that belonged to the person (or animal) that left the household
- lick his paws
Any of these behaviours may be present as part of a reasonable response to change, but not for long. Dogs typically get back to their old selves within a few days or weeks after a change. It’s normal for a dog to react to change. If they don’t bounce back, we need to understand that it could be depression.
What Types of Dogs Don’t React Well to Change?
Senior dogs or those who have been used to a stable environment, may have a harder time with change. Certain high energy or high needs dog breeds may also be more prone to anxiety and behaviours seen in depression. Be patient and loving – a couple of months may be needed for your dog to adjust fully to the change. Make sure he has a diet filled with healthy whole foods and give him extra loving attention. Keep a routine as much as possible.
Your dog may seem depressed, but he might just be reacting to normal life events – like we do. However, depression is a very real possibility. If you suspect your dog is depressed, talk to your holistic vet to rule out and treat underlying reasons. Maximize your dog’s nutrition, activity and social connections and take good care of YOU. Consider holistic psychotherapy to improve your own mental wellness and see if this improves your fur souls’ mood.
Be kind to every living being. Respect the earth we share.