What can you do to help dogs when they get depressed?

The term “depression”, as used in humans, may not be entirely appropriate for dogs. The dictionary definition of depression is:

  • Severe despondency and dejection, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy.
  • A condition of mental disturbance, typically with lack of energy and difficulty in maintaining concentration or interest in life.

Do dogs get depressed?

While dogs can become very anxious and disturbed, I remain to be convinced that they have “depression” as defined above. “Doggy depression”  is different to the condition in humans. It’s claimed that one-in-four dogs in the UK suffers from “depression” and it’s likely to be similar in Ireland.

The main problem is that dogs learn to enjoy the company of humans, and when they are deprived of this, they become stressed. The more common term that is used in dogs is “separation anxiety”. In the UK, the Dog Breeding Advisory Council has stated that this is one of the top seven clinical problems seen by vets, so it is very serious indeed.

Separation Anxiety

Typically, dogs are left alone at home while everyone goes to work, and they suffer as a consequence. In a classic case, when you get home, even if you have only been missing for a few minutes, you discover that your dog has peed or pooed, or has chewed something. The neighbours may tell you that your dog has been howling or barking. This is more than just a nuisance for humans – dogs suffer while this is happening.

Typical signs of separation anxiety fall into four categories:

  1. Destructive behavior, commonly directed towards exits from the home, such as doors. This may also mean attempts to escape from confined areas such as crates or rooms. You may also see destruction directed towards personal items such as shoes, clothing etc
  2. Vocalisation such as persistent howling or barking.
  3. Elimination:  faeces and/or urine accidents
  4. Drooling: anxiety results in increased drooling, so you may see puddles of thick saliva by the dog’s bed or  near a place where the dog may have been scratching to get out.

Prevention of separation anxiety

Pups should be trained to get used to being left alone for short periods – all dogs do need to be on their own for some of their lives, and they need to be trained to learn this.

Dogs should be exercised for around half an hour twice daily and should not be left alone for more than three hours at a stretch. If dogs sometimes have to be left alone for longer, steps should be taken to minimise the impact on them – such as Adaptil diffusers, food stuffed toys etc

Sometimes two dogs can work better than one…..

Treatment of separation anxiety

If there is an established problem, treatment involves altering several aspects of the dog’s environment and changing how people interact with the dog. Sometimes, anti-anxiety medication is needed, on the advice of your vet.

Do not reward anxiety-induced demands for attention. Dogs often will demand attention when anxious but if you give them attention, this rewards them, and can make them more likely to get anxious the next time. You should try to ignore demands for attention, and instead, give your dog attention at times that you choose, when your dog is not pestering you.

Keep your departures and arrivals low-key. Walks, feeding, and other attention for the dog should not happen in the 30 minutes before you go out – instead, have the dog in the place where they will be staying and ignore them for this period. Give your dog a treat that takes some time to consume just before you leave. Products like food-stuffed toys, such as a Kong or a Squirrel Dude, can be helpful to distract your dog from your absence.

When you come home, ignore your dog until she is relaxed rather than rewarding the hyper-excitable behaviour by saying “hello” enthusiastically, as we are all prone to doing.

Teach your dog to be calm when left alone by  leaving him alone for increasingly longer periods, Change the behaviours that you normally do as you prepare to leave home (picking up keys, putting on your coat, etc.). If any of these activities make your dog seem agitated, do them at times when you are not leaving. For example, pick up your keys and then go and sit down until your dog relaxes again. The aim is to stop these activities from acting as signs to your dog that you are going to leave soon, so that your dog is less hyped up when it is actually time for you to go.

Dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) – Adaptil diffusers and collars release pheromones that help dogs feel more calm and relaxed. Training a dog to live in a crate while you are not there can help in some cases, as long as you do this carefully and gradually, not leaving the dog alone in the crate for long periods.

In severe cases of separation anxiety, the help of a qualified, experienced behavioural specialist is needed: ask your vet to recommend someone locally.

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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