Dogs and Mental Health – What You Need to Know
They could serve as ambassadors of happiness, if such a thing existed.
Ever enthusiastic about life, dogs exude joy and excitement over just about anything. They’re as thrilled by the squirrel in the yard as they are about mealtime and your arrival home from work.
Yet despite their seemingly eternal state of happiness, even canines aren’t immune to the struggles associated with mental illness. As our society continues to raise awareness regarding human mental health, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that dogs too are susceptible to mental health disorders ranging from depression to anxiety. Biochemical imbalances in dogs, as in humans, can be responsible for neurological and behavioral problems.
While you may never be able to ensure your canine companion is the epitome of perfect mental health, simply having an awareness of the common mental illness risks confronting your dog can prove beneficial. Here’s what you need to know about canine mental health.
Can Dogs Be Mentally Ill?
Often used as an umbrella term, “mental illness” typically refers to a wide range of mental health conditions: Disorders that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. As the body of clinical research regarding animal mental health grows, examples of dogs exhibiting nervous, fearful, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors continue to emerge.
Various types of mental illnesses can afflict dogs:
- Anxiety: Many dogs turn into a bundle of nerves whenever a thunderstorm hits or whenever a trip to the vet is necessary.
- Depression: Depressed dogs tend to lose interest in food, while carrying their tails and ears low.
- Neurological Disease: Research indicates that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) exists in dogs, as does Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Trauma: A dog who was treated cruelly may have mental scars from that experience.
Is Your Dog Suffering from Anxiety?
Much like their human counterparts, dogs can suffer from stress and anxiety. This psychological struggle takes many forms in canines, with signs of anxiety ranging from aggression and disobedience to trembling and restlessness.
The catalysts of dog anxiety are as numerous as they are diverse. They include:
- Separation from family
- Boredom/lack of exercise
- Fear (loud noises, other dogs, certain people, objects, etc.)
- Changes to daily routine
- Loss or addition of family member or dog
- Health problems/pain
When attempting to determine if your dog is suffering from anxiety, start by evaluating his daily life for signs of stress. It’s worthwhile to consult your veterinarian and to schedule an evaluation for your dog.
SAD: How the Winter Blues Affects Your Dog
When the holiday season ends and the long winter months settle in, humans are known to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Dogs, however, don’t appear to be plagued by a similar fate. Rather, animal behaviorists speculate that dogs may feel down during winter because they tend to mirror their owner’s mood and because they’re susceptible to cabin fever.
The clinical signs of depression in canines range from lack of energy to absence of play and loss of appetite. While it may be necessary for you to consult your veterinarian should your dog exhibit symptoms of depression, you can start by trying to bolster your own mood and seeing if your canine follows suit.
How to Care for an Abused Dog
In many documented cases of canine mental illness, an underlying cause is sought. Sadly, evidence of a background marred by trauma or abuse can translate into subsequent mental health issues for canines. If you’ve ever walked through an animal shelter full of canines with pained expressions, you’ve witnessed what depression looks like in dogs.
The universal response to abuse is one of mistrust, social withdrawal, physical inactivity, and depression. Abuse and neglect can result in serious ramifications, and behavioral flaws arising from a traumatic upbringing can threaten an animal’s life.
When attempting therapeutic work with an abused dog, here’s an appropriate course of action:
- Make your dog feel needed and loved
- Allow your new dog to become accustomed to you at his own pace
- Protect your dog against whatever he fears
- Build the dog’s confidence
- Strive for clear communication with your dog
- Always ensure adequate exercise and a healthy diet
- Give your new dog a safe place where he can go to get away
Mental Stimulation for Your Dog
Everybody needs a pick-me-up sometimes, dogs included. Your dog’s mental well-being is a product of the combination of love, attention, exercise, and social opportunities you afford him.
A domestic dog is a family member and his needs must be considered. While toys and food puzzles can enhance your dog’s environmental enrichment, there’s simply no substitute for quality one-on-one time between a dog and his caring owner.
Chances are your dog will exude nothing but happiness the vast majority of the time. But in the event your canine exhibits signs of mental distress, it’s important for you to monitor the situation and take strides to protect his mental well-being.
Resources for Dogs and Mental Health
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