Can dogs get depressed or suffer from the winter blues? What are the signs of an unhappy dog, and how can you help raise your pet’s spirits? With the help of behaviourist Nick Jones, we take a look at the facts.
Mental health issues aren't unique to humans. Dogs may not be able to express their feelings in the same ways that we can, but they have many of the same neurochemicals (substances responsible for the regulation of emotions in the brain) that we do. So it follows that they can experience low spirits.
Like us, dogs are also exposed to hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, when they're stressed. These chemicals wear off very slowly, and the levels of dopamine - the 'happy' hormone that drives dogs to seek positive outcomes - can then be depleted as a result.
Why do dogs get low?
There isn't necessarily a particular trigger for low spirits in dogs. However, certain situations, such as grief or boredom, can lead to dogs having a depressed demeanour. Dogs may grieve deeply if a member of their family (whether two- or four-legged) passes away, and they can pick up on low spirits in their human companions. Meanwhile, dogs may grow bored, restless and low if all they do is stay home alone while you're working elsewhere.
Can dogs be affected by the season?
Just like us, dogs can suffer from the winter blues. Cold weather usually means less exercise and outdoor play for your dog, both of which help to increase dopamine levels. Winter may also offer fewer opportunities to meet up with other dogs, which can affect your pet if he's sociable.
Disruption to your pet's routine can also be a stressor. For example, if your dog receives a lot of attention and company over the festive holidays but is suddenly left alone more often in the new year, he may find it hard to cope with the change. We'll look at how you can help your dog cope with change later in this article.
Signs of an unhappy dog
It's not always easy to tell whether your dog is depressed, but trust your instincts. If his behaviour feels out of the ordinary, it could be a sign that something is wrong. Some depressed dogs may become subdued and interact with you less, while others can become clingy and follow you around.
The following symptoms could also indicate that not all is well with your dog's mental state. Bear in mind, though, that many of these symptoms could have causes other than low spirits, including illness. So if you notice any unusual behaviour in your dog, including the symptoms below, consult your vet for advice - and to rule out any underlying physical causes.
Some dogs may hide naturally, particularly if they live in a busy house. But if this isn't their usual behaviour, and it has become a habit, something may be wrong.
Chewing or licking paws
Dogs may do this as a soothing mechanism, so it can be an indicator of unhappiness - particularly if it's a new habit, or they're doing it more than usual.
Lack of enthusiasm
Dogs' behaviour and energy levels can change the course of their life. But if they no longer enjoy playing or walks all of a sudden, this could be a sign of low spirits or other health issues.
Change in appetite
Changes to normal eating habits - whether that means a loss of appetite or increased comfort eating - could be a sign of low spirits or illness in dogs. Don't try to force food on a reluctant dog, but do seek veterinary advice.
Increase in sleeping
Many dogs love napping - but if they're spending more time than usual asleep, and they ignore your presence when you're home, there may be an issue to investigate.
How to help an unhappy dog
Seriously unhappy dogs may require help from a professional behaviourist, or even medication. However, there are also a number of things we can do to lift our dog's spirits at home, particularly if they are suffering from the winter blues.
Firstly, it's important to not reinforce a depressed state by offering treats or rewards to a dog that refuses to go for walks or eat as usual. Instead, spend time doing something your dog enjoys, and reward that healthy behaviour.
Find opportunities to socialise dog with other dogs - visit places where there are likely to be lots of dogs, or join training classes. Socialising can help a dog's disposition immensely, as other dogs can provide interaction that even the most loving human is unable to.
If a formerly extrovert dog is becoming quieter after being left on his own for periods of time, be aware that he may be suffering from separation anxiety - it may be a good idea to invest in a dog walker or doggie day-care. A plug-in pheromone diffuser can also be a useful way to help your dog feel calmer during periods of change or stress.
Beating the doggie blues
If your dog is getting less exercise than usual for any reason - during wintry weather, for example - think about adapting his activities and increasing the amount of mental stimulation he receives. Puzzle-solving toys are a fantastic way to keep his mind occupied. They also have the benefit of rewarding him each time he gets the puzzle right - something that's sure to help increase his dopamine levels.
You could also try bringing his exercise indoors. Think about creating an obstacle course with cardboard boxes for your dog to chase through, or invest in an indoor-friendly ball, for a game of catch in your living room.
Always keep in mind that while caring for your dog's physical health is important, it's just as crucial to keep him mentally healthy, too.