When Christina Russo ended her engagement, she took it hard, but her Great Dane, Pepe, took the breakup even harder. When her ex moved out, their normally energetic pup didn’t want to play or go on walks. “He just wasn’t his usual bouncy self,” Russo tells me. She took him to the vet, who told her there wasn’t anything physically wrong. But when she explained the circumstances that led up to the change in behavior, the problem was obvious: Pepe was struggling with depression.
Mental health has become an increasingly popular topic throughout the pandemic, and pets have played a big role in helping people manage their depression, anxiety and isolation. But now many pet owners have started to wonder how our dogs are doing after absorbing all of our demons. Back in September, when actress Olivia Munn posted about “Petco’s free Well-Adjusted Dog seminar” in a paid partnership to raise awareness about pet mental health, I just took it as further evidence of our broken brains.
And when a U.K.-based publication recently tweeted about a possible “canine mental health crisis,” I looked over to find my chihuahua-lab rescue pouting that she couldn’t eat garbage out of the bathroom trash. As much as I love my dog and value mental health, there’s something about crossing those streams that I could never understand. My dog doesn’t have a job, pay taxes or know that there’s a war going on — how much of an issue could her “mental health” really be?
That said, we know that all sentient, emotional beings are impacted by trauma and dramatic change — and that experiences of trauma are relative. So it’s difficult to deny the premise completely, and veterinarians like Jamie Whittenburg agree. “Dogs definitely suffer a mental state akin to depression in humans,” she tells me.
Separation anxiety in dogs is a mental health affliction many owners already take very seriously, in large part because they risk property damage if left unaddressed. And in Whittenburg’s experience, depressive symptoms in dogs are typically a response to a move or the loss of an owner or someone they lived with. “Depressed dogs may sleep more, interact with the family less, eat less and be less interested in play or activities they enjoy doing, like going for walks,” explains Whittenburg.
Certified dog trainer and vet tech Julie Burgess adds that chronic pain from old age and injuries, as well as long-term abuse and neglect can lead to both anxiety and depression symptoms in dogs. However, so can smaller issues like “unmet mental or physical stimulation needs, or even schedule changes.” Burgess also notes that dogs who are used to having a lot of people around can take these subtle shifts hard. “This is particularly true when kids go back to school in the fall.”
Still, the emotional experiences dogs are enduring in these instances may not be comparable to clinical depression in humans. Veterinarian Justin Padgett explains that it might be more accurate to describe what dogs are going through as grief. “I’m not sure of any research on chemical imbalances that lead to a true diagnosis of depression, but I know that they grieve when they lose loved ones,” Padgett tells me.
This sensitivity to loss among dogs has led to stories of what’s been perceived as suicidal behaviors. Specifically in countries like Italy, where owners have been known to leave their pets alone for weeks at a time to go on vacation, there have been reports of dogs becoming so distraught that they jumped off a balcony. The Overtoun Bridge in Scotland has even been dubbed “Dog Suicide Bridge” due to the upwards of 50 dogs that have jumped off of it since the 1950s.
Yet suicidal behaviors among dogs appears to be fairly rare, as Padgett points out that, “as a general rule, they have a strong drive to live.” Along those lines, psychologist Stanley Coren asserts that most dogs function at the level of a toddler and “children at that age have no conception of life and death and there is no evidence that dogs do, either,” he writes in Psychology Today. Because of this, “the idea of a depressed dog throwing himself in front of a car or jumping off of a high cliff to take his life is difficult to accept.”
Regardless, owners should take their dog’s lethargy, lack of appetite and other depressive symptoms seriously when they can’t be explained by an underlying and treatable medical problem — which, of course, should be ruled out first. “Physical illness certainly leads to dogs feeling and acting depressed and should be addressed before looking for an actual mental illness,” Padgett says.
If it seems like Fido really is depressed, dog owners can try a number of interventions that aren’t exactly the same as talk therapy. But like depression in humans, you’ll likely need to try multiple tactics and eventually develop consistent routines around the ones that work. Burgess recommends more quality time with dogs, for starters, along with new toys and puzzles for mental stimulation, as well as something she refers to as “smell walks” — which are exactly what they sound like. “The goal is just sniffing, not necessarily walking,” Burgess explains. “Dogs love to sniff and gather an incredible amount of information just by doing so.”
In more severe instances, dog owners might consider medication, but only if it’s in addition to other accredited training programs for dogs with PTSD and other behavioral issues, Whittenburg says. Dogs that are prone to anxiety attacks might be prescribed Xanax or even Valium in the short term, but only in extreme cases, and “owners must be careful not to overuse these drugs as dependence and tolerance may develop,” Whittenburg warns.
For dogs with more frequent mental health problems, a daily SSRI might be prescribed, or something known as a tricyclic antidepressant, or TCA. As with humans, “prescription medication can help dogs live fuller, happier lives. When used correctly and prescribed by a veterinarian, they’re safe and effective in treating canine anxiety and behavioral disorders,” Whittenburg says.
After veterinarian Sara Ochoa adopted a dog at the start of the pandemic, her pup quickly became extremely attached to her husband. But ever since his office and the rest of the world opened back up, when he goes somewhere, she gets very depressed and sad. Ochoa has yet to resort to medicating her dog and is being patient with the transition, which appears to be leveling out. “If we do go somewhere, we will turn on the TV for her,” she says. And if she knows her husband is going to be gone for most of the day, Ochoa will bring her dog to work with her.
Already, she’s seeing that these small incremental changes are helping her dog get back to her normal happy self. And while treating clinical depression in humans doesn’t quite look like long walks sniffing urine on lampposts, staying similarly present in the moment and experiencing joy can go a long way in terms of our mental health, too.
Essentially, for humans and dogs, it helps to stop and smell the roses. Or if you’re like my dog, stopping and smelling the garbage. But hey, whatever makes you happy.