The Holiday Blues, even dogs get it!
by Leila Grandemange
Does dog depression really exist?
The “Holiday season” is generally defined as the period from Thanksgiving to the New Year. The word holiday can instill all sorts of emotions in us, from exuberant joy and hearts filled with hope to anxiety and a certain gloomy feeling otherwise known as the “Holiday blues.” It certainly can be an emotional roller coaster time of year, and believe it or not, our dogs feel it too! With the holidays upon us and the hustle and bustle of shopping for those special gifts, planning meals, cooking and cleaning, and welcoming family and friends, our dogs sense that something is different— a change in routine, morning walks forgotten, less play time. Before long the blues set in. He’s lacking his usual spunk, not eating well and sleeping more than usual. Could our dog actually be depressed?
Does dog depression really exist?
Dogs have a strong bond with their human companions. This is especially true for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed, but also for any dog, purebred or mixed. Domestic dog lives in a world where they are completely dependent on us— we are the ones who feed, groom, train and care for all their needs. One of their greatest needs however is for companionship. I believe this is why they can suffer so deeply when left alone or ignored for long periods. Everyone’s got up days and down days, even our dogs, and certainly we can’t drop everything and spend all our time playing fetch with our dogs while our Christmas roast is burning in the oven and guests are wondering where we’ve disappeared. But when the “down days” outweigh the “up days” depression has a certain way of creeping in. Did you know that canine depression, like human depression, is a real condition? It can affect dogs during the holidays, but also any time of the year.
Dr. Raymond Van Lienden, DVM, says that no study has yet unequivocally proven that canine depression exists, yet he is convinced animals have emotions. The challenge for a Vet is in diagnosing a condition that often mimics those of other health problems. Dr. Van Lienden says those symptoms may include lethargy, weight loss, lack of interest in food, drink and social activities, as well as a tendency to sleep more. A proper medical exam is critical in order to rule out other health problems. If the root cause is not a physical ailment, it seems from my reading on this topic that the general consensus is that some sort of “change” is usually at the root of canine depression – a sudden death or disappearance of a human or canine companion, a change of home, the addition of a new baby, or simply any change in routine, as can happen during the holidays, when the kids head back to school or the owner starts a new job.
So what can we do to help our canine companions?
- BE AWARE of the signs of depression.
- BE PREPARED to prevent and treat depression.
- BE WILLING to make the necessary changes in our lifestyle/routine to help prevent canine depression.
Let’s begin by recognizing the signs of dog depression. . .
A dog’s body language usually reveals his frame of mind; but to the untrained eye, these subtle cries for help often go unnoticed until one day the owners wake up to more serious problems. Here are a few signs to help us recognize depression in our dogs. Let’s think of them as a red traffic light asking us to STOP, look, and observe carefully before going about our busy day:
- Appearing unusually tired, a change in pace, lowered body, tail held lower than usual, pacing, vocalizing by whining, howling, or barking excessively or in an unusual way, a glazed look, squinting, panting, stretching, yawning, drooling, ears back, digging, chewing on self, lack of or excessive grooming, anxiety, loss of appetite, loss of initiative in play, or other unusual or out-of-context behaviors. (These signs could also mean others things; remember to consult a vet.)
By doing these things, a dog is revealing his mental state. Dogs don’t hide their feelings well. They’re an open book—just turn the pages, take the time and read.
Be prepared to prevent and help treat our dogs if depression is suspected . . .
Dr. Van Lienden, DVM, offers the following suggestions for preventing and treating dog depression.
- If some kind of major change is forthcoming, try to gradually transition your dog by maintaining its usual schedule and keeping familiar toys and objects at hand/paw. Then slowly introduce your dog to the new person or place, allowing it to sniff and investigate as much as possible.
- If another dog in your family dies, consider replacing it with a new dog, as studies suggest canines enjoy having same species companionship.
- Once your vet rules out medical conditions as a cause for your dog’s problems, say something like, “Humor me, doctor. Could my dog be depressed?” Some vets are more open to the possibility than others, so you may have to step in as your dog’s mental health advocate.
- In severe cases, consider medications that your veterinarian could prescribe . . . which can “buy some time” to get your dog through the worst period.
Dr. Mark Verdino, DVM, offers this advice . . .
“If your pet suffers from grief, increasing his activity and playtime can be very helpful. Making sure he gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation can be a key factor is his recovery. If your pet is suffering from loneliness from a loss of a friend or family member, regular play-dates with other animals or even adopting a new pet may take his blues away. Dog parks and dog runs are an excellent way for him to mingle. You can also enroll him in doggy daycare, which provides companionship, mental stimulation and socialization.”
Dr. Verdino further explains that antidepressants or anxiety medication may be prescribed if a chemical imbalance is suspected, while those preferring a more holistic approach may be directed toward herbal supplements to treat the condition. Dr. Verdino cautions, “It’s very important to remember to NEVER give your pet any medications or supplements without consulting with your veterinarian first.”
Be willing to adjust our routine/schedule to include the needs of our dog. Here are some suggestions . . .
- Prepare your dog for change: Don’t leave on a long vacation or begin a new job without first preparing your dog. Gradually build up to the event by getting your dog used to short time periods away from you.
- Interview the person and/or facility who will be caring for your dog to ensure you find the most experienced, kind, and loving caregiver possible.
- Invite the new pet sitter or dog walker over a few times to get to know your dog better. This will help your dog transition to a new routine. If a Doggy Day Care is in the plan, take time to introduce him to the personnel and facility.
- Keep a morning routine for your dog, even if it means getting up a bit earlier. Any time interacting with your dog is better than no time.
- Give your dog appropriate affection and attention without overdoing it, as you may be reinforcing the depressed behavior. Be a calm reassuring presence for your dog.
- Keep it simple: When it’s time to leave or introduce any change in routine, keep it simple- pet your dog, but don’t get overly emotional. Dogs can sense our emotions ( our energy) and will know if we are sad or anxious. Staying calm will send the message to your dog that all is well, no need to worry, I’ll be back . . .
- If you’re dog appears anxious when you are about to part ways, leave the TV or radio on a soothing channel. Try some soft classical music. According to sound researcher Joshua Leeds, “Rock music, jazz, heavy metal made them more anxious. Classical slowed them down. It just relaxed them in a way that the other music seemed to irritate them.” You can also purchase a music CD made especially to have a calming effect on a dog. I found several options online. Here is a site I found with an example of soothing music by Vivaldi and other classical composers. You could probably make your own special CD with similar music. http://throughadogsear.com/icalmdog/ I suggest playing it now and then while you’re home interacting with your dog so he can make a positive connection while you’re gone or during a stressful event.
- Take an afternoon break with your dog, even if only for a few minutes, just to check in and say, “Hey, I’m here and I care about you.” If you can’t come home for a lunch break, hire someone to check in on the dog. No dog should be alone for the entire day.
- Remain calm: When you get back home, again, don’t make it a big deal. Maybe even ignore your dog for a few seconds, and then take him out to potty. Once you settle in, take time together.
- Create an evening routine if you don’t already have one. Understandably, there’s lots to catch up on when you get home from a day out or after a hectic day entertaining guests- dinner to make, kids needing help with their homework, emails to answer, laundry to wash, etc…. but let the evening dog walk or at least a 15 minute play time be a priority. It will probably do you good as well to relax a bit before tackling the evening chores.
- Keep feedings as close to the same time each day as possible.
- Delegate activities to other family members or a dog walker if you’re busy. This lets our dogs know we still care, and gets out their extra energy so they remain calm and even sleep peacefully while we are busy or away.
- Spend quality time with your dog when you can and include them in family activities when possible. You’d be surprised how many places allow dogs nowadays. Since purchasing a large Pet Stroller (it looks like a baby stroller), I can take my dogs more places than ever before. And with their new holiday pet costumes, I’m sure they’ll be a big hit!
- Keep in mind that good physical health is directly related to good mental health. Make sure you are feeding your dog a high quality diet and that he is getting enough sunshine and exercise to ensure a healthy state of mind. If there is any doubt about your dog’s physical well-being, don’t hesitate to visit your vet.
How long is too long to leave your dog?
I’ve heard debate on this question. So to answer this question simply I’d say – You will know how long is too long. When you love someone ( person or pet), you’re in tune with how they feel. You know your dog better than anyone else and can observe any change in behavior that would indicate you may be leaving him too long. For those who work full-time, having a dog is often not an option . . . although I know a few people who’ve found very creative ways to make it happen.
Is there hope for a depressed dog?
There’s always hope! The good news is that dogs, unlike most humans, live more for the present moment. Given time to adjust and cope with change, most cases of doggy depression with its related symptoms are temporary. However, as dog owners we must be vigilant, constantly aware of any change in our dogs behavior. It would be cruel to leave any dog in a state of mental anguish. Anyone who has experienced a period of depression can tell you, it’s a stubborn darkness,a lonely private hell. Dogs cannot verbally share how they feel, but if we watch their body language, vocalizations, and behavior we will hear their cries for help.
Luke Salkeld, in his recent article in the Daily Mail online publication writes, “Now one in four of Britain’s eight million pet dogs are said to be suffering from depression of their own, caused by the stress of being left alone by busy owners. According to some evidence, the problem is made worse for animals whose owners work particularly long hours or have just returned to their jobs”. Disturbing behavior in some depressed dogs was observed- barking or howling for long periods with endless pacing when left alone ( as seen on home video surveillance cameras), even inflicting self harm. I’m sure similar statistics appear in countries all over the world. There’s no doubt that dogs, much like people, suffer from depression. Even with our best efforts to care for our beloved pets, life often throws us a curve-ball and we’re caught by surprise – people die, dogs die, natural disasters leave people and animals in a state of stress, anxiety and depression. “Change” is part of life for everyone, even for dogs. All we can do is to BE AWARE that depression exists, BE PREPARED to prevent and treat depression, and BE WILLING to make adjustments in our life to keep our dogs as happy as possible.
Finally, I will share my simple remedy for dog depression . . .
While I’m not a vet, nor an expert on dog depression, I’m certain of a simple truth : A loving presence is still the best remedy for canine depression. Let’s find ways to include our dogs in the Holiday festivities. I for one could use the calming and comforting presence of my beloved dogs this time of year. Enjoy the Holidays my friends !
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