What to Do if Your Cat or Dog Is Depressed

Your loyal pet seems to know when you are feeling down and need a little cheering up, whether it is a lick to your face or just snuggling beside you.  But what about when your pet is the one who is feeling sad or depressed?  How can you know if your pet is depressed, and what can you do?

Just like humans, cats and dogs can have depression for a variety of reasons, such as loss of a human or animal companion, environmental stress or even emotional stress from another family member. The arrival of a new baby or moving households can also cause pets to become depressed.

Many of the symptoms of depression in cats and dogs are similar to those found in humans: changes in appetite, sleeping habits and personality; loss of interest in things they usually enjoy; and retreating from other people and social situations.

Of course, exactly how these each manifest varies a bit between people and pets.  For example,  instead of a person turning down an opportunity to go out with friends in favor of staying home, a depressed cat or dog might simply avoid the more populated areas of the house or even hide somewhere completely isolated, like a closet. Likewise, a depressed person may suddenly lose interest in a treasured hobby, but a depressed cat or dog might lose interest in playtime or taking walks.

However, there are some symptoms of depression that are unique to cats and dogs, so they might not be as intuitive to identify. Increased vocalization, such as a dog barking more than usual or a cat meowing nonstop, can be a sign of depression in these animals. A depressed cat might start urinating around the house in places other than the litter box, regardless of how well trained they are to do so already. Similarly, dogs that start urinating inside the house instead of outside might be displaying a similar behavior. Grooming behavior may also suffer in the face of depression, particularly with cats. Matted fur might be a sign that they aren’t grooming themselves enough, which can be a result of depression. Conversely, since dogs do not naturally groom themselves like cats do, licking or chewing at their paws might actually be a sign that something is wrong.

Many of these and other behaviors are contextual; on their own, they can be symptoms of several other health problems that are entirely different from depression.  Therefore, make sure to consult your vet before making any assumptions about what your pet’s behavior might mean. For example, a cat might start whining more than usual for a variety of reasons, but if it is accompanied by the cat roaming the house and searching for a recently lost companion, it’s more likely that that the change in behavior is a sign of depression.

So what can you do for a depressed pet? Some treatments aren’t too fundamentally different from what we do for people experiencing depression.  In some cases, medication can be particularly effective if the animal’s condition stems from or is exacerbated by a chemical imbalance.

Additionally, while psychotherapy remains an option largely unique to humans when it comes to treating depression, animal behavior experts can sometimes help people better understand their pets and suggest ways to help depressed pet regain vitality.  Still, despite the limitations, there are things you can do for your pet to keep them a bit healthier and happier. Regular play time and exercise can do wonders for a pet’s mental and physical health, whether it’s taking your dog for a walk or spending some time with your cat and a laser pointer or favorite toy.  Finally, a little patience, love and affection can go a long way in keeping your pet feeling safe and secure.

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