A couple of days after the 4th July, a friend phoned me. “Scamp’s been really kinda…off since the fireworks. Not himself at all. I was wondering – can dogs get depression?”
Scamp is a young boxer dog, generally to be found with all four paws in the air and an expression of absolute joy on his face. The behavior my friend described – lethargy, cowering, whining, reluctance to play or go on walks – was certainly out of character. My first reaction was to blame the 4th July fireworks for spooking poor Scamp. My second was to wonder if Scamp was physically ill. I recommended that my friend take him to the veterinarian, but all tests came back negative. There was nothing physically wrong with this boxer, but his ‘symptoms’ persisted, and, what is more, lasted for a while after the fireworks finished. I had to wonder if my friend’s initial diagnosis was right – maybe Scamp had had an attack of depression.
Scamp’s story has a happy ending. After a week or so of behaving with bizarrely un-boxer like melancholy, he recovered his spirits and was as exuberant last time I saw him as ever he was before the fireworks. However, his case got me wondering about canine mental health. Of course, anyone who has any experience of dogs knows that their emotions are just as varied and complex as humans, so it stands to reason that they could also be prone to the same kinds of emotional disorders that we are. But where does veterinary science stand on the matter? I decided to do a little research.
Most of the scientific studies into dogs and mental health tend to focus around their ability to help us with our own mental health problems. It’s well established that dogs are amazing for both our physical and mental health, and their incredible healing qualities are leading to them being used increasingly in the field of mental health support work. However, with even human mental health still being a bit of a mystery area, it’s perhaps no surprise to find that there hasn’t been a huge amount of research into canine mental illness – or that the research which has been done has proven pretty inconclusive. However, there are a few things we can pick up on, and there are certainly some definitive mental health diagnoses for dogs. Most have easily identifiable ‘triggers’ – stress caused by separation or poor living conditions, for example. Whether dogs can suffer from more ‘hidden’ disorders which, due to the fact that they can’t really talk to us about how they’re feeling, we simply put down to the individual dog’s character, is something which science remains unsure about. For my two cents, I certainly think that creatures as emotionally complex as dogs are bound to suffer the negatives of a rich emotional landscape as well as the positives – but science can’t yet back me up on this! Below are some of the recognized psychological disorders with which a dog can suffer:
Canine Compulsive Disorder. CCD involves the dog repeating an action to excess, apparently through stress or anxiety. Common CCD behaviors include licking, spinning, sucking flanks, or tail-chasing. Basically, the compulsive behaviors are an attempt on the dog’s part to ‘self soothe’ when they are stressed, anxious, or otherwise upset. Giving the dog a good life, and a happy home often alleviates the problem. However, some vets have found that CCD which can’t be tackled through changes in the home can be alleviated through anti-anxiety meds, suggesting that the root cause may, in some cases, be a neurochemical imbalance – just like compulsive disorders in humans!
Separation Anxiety. Any dog owner knows that dogs are highly sociable animals, and getting them to tolerate being left alone takes training, and a lot of confidence-building. Separation anxiety is exactly what it sounds like – anxiety and stress resulting from being separated from company. It’s a big problem for many owners, as dogs often become pathological in their anxiety, responding to their emotions with loud and destructive behavior. Generally, training is needed to deal with this problem, but sometimes the problem is so serious that owners seek medical assistance.
PTSD. Yes, dogs too can suffer from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dogs exposed to highly distressing events and situations may experience personality change, become hypervigilant, display anxiety, and respond with terror or aggression if anything triggers a memory of the trauma. Generally, it’s recommended that dogs with PTSD are treated with gentle care and understanding to rebuild their confidence, and helped through training to manage any behavioral problems resulting from their trauma.