I’m sure it’s not only me that finds January a depressing month. The Christmas run up and frivolity has passed and has left everybody feeling a little deflated… The weather gets even colder; New Year’s Resolutions are already being broken; and even though logically you know the days are getting longer, it doesn’t feel like it yet!
But for some people, it’s more than finding it a little cold and dreary. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recognised mental health condition that affects 1 in 15 people in the UK. It’s thought to be caused by a lack of sunlight affecting part of the brain that produces hormones, and it causes long periods of depression, lethargy and sleeplessness in people it effects.
So, what about our pets? Do our dogs get depressed? Can cats get low spirits?
Just like us, our pets definitely feel stress. Dogs can exhibit symptoms of stress we all recognise – such as whining and shaking at the sound of fireworks – but also subtler signs, especially when the stress is more chronic (long lasting).
A dog that has been overworked can start to show signs of fatigue, such as showing an inability to concentrate, ‘acting up’, making simple mistakes, or even unusual aggression – just like a human who has worked too long without a break. This is also affected by previous stress – dogs that have had a stressful or scary experience in the last couple of days are quicker to reach the point where they’re unable to carry on. A dog that was scared by a firework display yesterday will likely struggle to do more than the simplest commands today – the cortisol released by their stressful experience will still be in their system and affecting them.
Plus, dogs that haven’t recently had the opportunity to do normal canine things – such as sniffing and playing – are also prone to reaching this ‘overworked’ state more quickly. You can liken this to a person who has no work-life balance: they’ll quickly become overworked, stressed and eventually depressed.
Cats, on the other hand, are rarely overworked, and instead tend to find different things stressful. As prey, they’re intensely stressed by changes in their environment or routine, as these things could indicate danger in the wild. We can compare this to a human constantly undergoing a stressful experience that feels life-altering – perhaps taking an exam or expecting an attack every day – it’s eventually going to produce illness and result in despondency. Similarly, cats are prone to chronic stress syndromes that can not only change their behaviour, but produce physical symptoms such as vomiting, overgrooming and cystitis.
We also know that our pets appear to grieve, although it’s something we struggle to scientifically examine and test. Anybody that has had the unfortunate experience of losing a family pet will know that any remaining dogs often show behavioural signs that could be called bereavement and even depression. When our old spaniel Jazz died, Pixie asked daily to go out and explore where she’d last seen her. She’d come back inside and whine some more, avoid Jazz’s bed (which she would quite happily have stolen just a day or two before) and generally appear perturbed. For a week or so, lethargy, a slight inappetence, and an inability to settle down occurred – all signs very close to symptoms of depression in humans.
Cats, as solitary creatures, appear less able to grieve for the loss of a companion, but they are very affected by loss in the humans they know. Whether their signs are truly grief or stress at the inevitable changes they’ll be going through is as yet undetermined.
It’s clear that our dogs do suffer from boredom. All dog breeds were bred for a purpose, and for the vast majority, this purpose was not for pure companionship. Dogs were bred to be clever, learn new things, and even be able to think independently. They were bred to run all day without a break, or patiently guard livestock without instruction. Certainly, they weren’t bred to sit around at home whilst their owners went to work. Dogs that are bored often appear depressed. They may retreat into themselves and become lethargic, or lazy. Sometimes, they may eat more than they should, or not at all. They may also become destructive. All of these signs can be interpreted as depression, especially if the boredom isn’t alleviated.
Cats can also suffer from boredom. Unlike dogs, they need far less human input and are generally more self-contained. But they’re genetically programmed to hunt all day, regardless of whether their food is coming from a bowl or not. That innate need to hunt – if not met – can cause them to become stressed, resulting in illnesses.
A common symptom of illness in animals is ‘depression’. But this is a medical term relating to their willingness to interact with their owners, go for walks, and generally ‘be themselves’. It’s something we see with a vast range of illnesses and is loosely similar to humans feeling ‘under the weather’ when ill. Whilst these behavioural changes are all similar to symptoms of human clinical depression, in our pets we find that the symptoms are quickly reversed once the illness has passed, making it not quite the same as true depression.
Although stress, grief, boredom and illness can all contribute to depression or look like depression, depression in humans can occur without cause. Can our pets suffer with depression as a distinct clinical syndrome? The answer is: we don’t know. To suffer with depression requires a certain amount of self-awareness, and we’re not sure how far dogs or cats are self-aware. Both species often fail the mirror test (whether or not they can recognise themselves in a mirror). That said, dogs in particular are not visual animals, and recognise one another based on scent more than anything else.
In addition, a diagnosis of depression in humans requires a discussion about feelings, and acknowledgement of those feelings. But our pets can’t articulate their feelings, let alone discuss them in detail, making diagnosis hard. My instinct? That dogs are too happy, too pure, and live too much ‘in the moment’ to suffer a level of clinical depression that would need medication. However, they certainly get sad and even depressed for a short time when faced with grief, stress, boredom or illness.
So, what can we do about it? If you suspect your dog is depressed, it’s worth getting them checked out to make sure it’s not a hidden illness. Assuming all is OK, they normally just need some social contact and time. Encourage them to do things they enjoy, such as going for a walk or playing with a favourite old toy. If they’re open to it, cuddle them on the sofa. If you think they’re bored, try getting a dog walker to visit or give them puzzles to solve or new training to undertake. Spend a little time with them, and you’ll soon see them getting back to their usual happy, bouncy selves.