We humans celebrate our dogs and the positive impact they have on our mental health. There have been countless studies on how dog owners are happier, live longer lives, and experience a wide variety of benefits to their health and quality of life. Dogs are even used therapeutically as emotional support animals.
But what about caring for canine mental health — did you even know that dogs can suffer from mental illness? They can, and we need to support them with effective treatment and lots of love.
Knowing about the most common mental health issues in dogs will help you know what symptoms to look out for and what to expect in terms of treatment.
We've listed some of them out here for you and your family. When it comes to treating mental health problems in dogs, it's very important that you are consistent in what you do, across all family members. Positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful tools in addressing canine behavior, and variability can offset how effective it is. Kids need to participate in the treatment, too.
Stress and Anxiety
You might see your dog shaking, panting, hiding, skin flaking (acute onset of dander), tucking their tail in, or even fleeing. They might have diarrhea, or use the dog potty in places where they're not supposed to. They might even start showing obsessive-compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly licking a spot on their body. These are all symptoms of stress and anxiety.
The causes are wide and varied, but they include separation anxiety, history of neglect or abuse, or even just changes in their nervous system that result from aging.
Seperation Anxiety is another common mental illness in dogs. This can be eliviated by providing your dog with toys to keep them busy while you're away. It can also relieve their stress to have a place where they can go potty while you're away. If you have an indoor dog bathroom, such as a DoggieLawn in your home, this will allow your dog to "go" while you're gone and can help to relieve some anxiety for them.
Once your doctor has ruled out any other health conditions, the anxiety can be treated, usually through a combination of behavioral modification and medicine. Exposing your dog to what they fear but using positive reinforcement to encourage non-anxious responses is often used to desensitize dogs. This may be combined with anti-anxiety medication.
It may take a long time to treat the anxiety, and it might not go away completely. The key is to be patient with your dog.
If you notice a sudden change in your dog's eating and sleeping habits and they seem to have less spring in their step, they might be depressed. They also might have some other health issues, and so it's important to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any other potential causes.
Usually, the cause of canine depression is a major life change. Moving, death, a new addition in the house, or even a significant change in daily routine are all among the leading causes of canine depression.
If depression is suspected, increased daily exercise is one of the first actions you can take. Sometimes, getting another dog can provide companionship that helps battle the depression. If neither of these prove successful, medications—such as fluoxetine—may be administered by your vet.
Dogs exposed to trauma—such as abandonment, natural disaster, accidents, or abuse—may suffer from PTSD. The symptoms of PTSD look a lot like the symptoms of stress and anxiety in dogs, but to a more intense level.
You might suddenly see potty training fail as dogs start peeing or pooping inappropriately. They might—triggered by something that may or may not be visible to you—start engaging in destructive behavior or even change their posture, tucking their tail and crouching low to the ground. They might become hypervigilant, aggressive, or even clingy.
The main treatment is systemic desensitization, with repeated exposure to the trigger in parallel to the administration of treats. The goal is, over time, to change the trigger's association away from fear and instead to the treat.
Daily exercise and positive reinforcement are also critical to any canine PTSD treatment plan.
Aggression occurs when a dog suddenly seems prepared to attack, and it usually stems from a misperception of threat. They might exhibit any number of behaviors, including baring their teeth, growling, becoming rigid, lunging, nipping, or even biting. There's a wide variety of classifications of aggression, but at the end of the day, you need to keep both your dog and everyone near them safe.
Aggression takes a lot of patience and work to address, and you need to make sure you are as consistent as possible. You need to consult with both your veterinarian as well as a professional behavioral expert to make sure you are addressing the aggression appropriately.
Dogs may exhibit schizophrenia-like behaviors, including acute changes in their temperament so that they suddenly start lashing out violently with no apparent trigger.
The first step to treatment is to use training to assert that you are the alpha, so that you can defuse a potentially dangerous situation. This, combined with anti-anxiety medication as well as mood-controlling medicine, is the usual way to keep schizophrenia under control.
Dementia in dogs can be seen when dogs start regularly getting disoriented, becoming super cranky, experiencing changes in sleep cycle or activity, and going to the bathroom indoors (hint: not on the fresh grass, as you'd trained them to).
Regular check-ups with your vet are critical to keep an eye on your dog. Dietary changes can introduce antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that help strengthen brain cells. Adding more play and enrichment to your dog's days can slow down cognitive decline. Further medication and supplements can be recommended by your veterinarian, depending on your dog's specific medical history and health concerns.
If you think your dog is suffering from mental illness, be sure to bring this up with your veterinarian and see what they recommend. There are many options available for treatments—both pharmaceutical and not—that can help you help your best friend.