While many scientists now acknowledge that dogs and other mammals experience some emotions, such as disgust, anger, fear and even happiness, the emotional roots of other behaviors are not as clear-cut. For example, is your dog showing sympathy when you're crying by laying its head on your lap, or is it seeking comfort from you? Attributing human emotions to canine behaviors can be tricky.
That's especially true with respect to canine behavior that seems to suggest depression. Although clinical depression is a recognized condition in people, veterinary behaviorists aren't sure that such a condition exists in dogs. "We don't know for sure whether dogs get clinical depression -- but they can act depressed," says veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg of Thornhill, Ontario. Behaviors that appear to reflect depression in dogs include a decrease in appetite, less interaction with their owners, refusing to engage in normal activities -- such as play and training -- and generalized lethargy.
Whether or not dogs actually acquire clinical depression, we should still take steps to deal with behaviors that seem to indicate such conditions. Here's what Dr. Landsberg and other experts suggest:
See a Veterinarian A dog's depression-like behavior often signals the onset of a physical illness. "The No. 1 sign of many medical problems in dogs is a change in behavior, such as going off food, interacting less with owners and reacting less to stimuli," warns Dr. Landsberg. "Unless those behaviors are associated with dramatic changes in the household, they're likely to be a sign of medical illness. Have a veterinarian check your dog over."
Anticipate The aforementioned changes in the household, particularly the death or departure of an individual in the home, can trigger depression-like behaviors in dogs. This can also happen after the arrival of a new household member, such as a baby or additional pet. Even moving to a new home can cause canine mood changes. "You can prevent depressed behavior if you realize there's going to be a change in the household," says Dr. Landsberg. "Gradually adapt the dog to what the change will be like beforehand." For example, if a child in the family is leaving for college, have someone else take over the dog care duties that were assigned to the child before he or she leaves.
Take Care of Yourself Often a dog may appear to be depressed in response to similar behavior in its owner. For example, if an owner has a depressive condition, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), "the dog may act depressed in response to the human," points out Dr. Landsberg. "And if the owner doesn't exercise and the dog doesn't get enrichment like it gets during warmer weather, the dog might become depressed due to change in routine." The remedy here: Deal with your own low spirits first so that you can then take care of your dog.
Let Your Dog Help You If you've got the blues, just taking care of your dog can help you deal with them. "The depressed person should help himself or herself, but let the dog help them as well," says Dr. Landsberg. "Don't bring the dog down -- let the dog pull you up."
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