May 7 / Teresa Tyler

When Did You Last Ask Your Dog How He's feeling?

This week is world Mental Health Week and it is an opportunity to reflect on an issue that is incredibly important. With the current crisis affecting everyone in all manner of ways, there has been a big surge in people needing support with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Working within the dog industry is notoriously stressful. Many people are self-employed, have to work in a very competitive market and are likely at some point to witness challenging or even traumatic dog-related incidents. Rescue centres have been hit hard during the pandemic; financially and with reduced staff and have had to become extremely resilient.
One of the most important ways in which humans can self-care, is to talk to supportive colleagues, friends and family about their experiences and feelings.
Unfortunately, dogs cannot talk about their feelings and as we now know, their capacity to experience emotions in a similar way to humans is a firmly established scientific fact. So how do we know if their mental health is suffering? Well they will show physical signs of distress. Understanding what these behavioural indicators show us is important for dog professionals and pet guardians. We can then try to treat mental health disorders in dogs more effectively.
Dog Mental Health
Often dogs will provide us with little clues about their mental wellbeing that can often be dismissed as being just a quirk, or habit that they have. If it doesn’t affect anyone else, what’s wrong with it, right?
According to Nancy Dreschel at Pennsylvania State University, fearful anxious dogs have shorter lifespans than calm, confident ones. Some mental health disorders such as separation anxiety , fearfulness and psychological distress can be associated with other illnesses such as certain skin conditions for example.
Common Mental Health Disorders in Dogs
Historically pet guardians have been more concerned about their dog’s physical condition rather than their mental health and don’t always know when their dog’s mental health might be suffering. As in humans, there are a number of conditions that affect dogs. Here are some of the more common ones:
Separation Anxiety
This is an all too common condition, where dogs start to become upset or panicky, if they think they will be left alone. They will often bark, whine, become destructive and may toilet in the house.
Social Anxiety
Previously neglected dogs, or pups who have poor socialisation experiences can cause them to experience extreme anxiety around humans or other dogs and in some cases, may lead to aggressive behaviours.
Noise Anxiety
Dogs may be easily startled by loud noises. Dogs with noise anxiety may show similar behaviours to those with separation and social anxiety, but you may also see a change in behaviour when the dog anticipates the noise, for example with thunderstorms and fireworks.
Obsessive Compulsive Behaviours
A simple description of OCD is when the dog behaves out of context, strangely and usually directed towards objects. They may repeat behaviours such as consistently tail chasing, pacing, digging or staring and barking at shadows.
Withdrawn, sad dogs who are lethargic and uninterested in interactions may be depressed. In the same way as humans experience depression, dogs can develop depressive states. As they cannot tell us how they are feeling, if a dog loses interest in things that he would normally enjoy, it is worth keeping an eye on.
Abnormal or unusual behaviour in dogs should never be ignored. Whether it is caused by a temporary illness or mental disorder, changes in behaviour are a good indicator that something is wrong. These are some of the symptoms you may spot in a dog with mental illness:
Anxiety Symptoms
  • Trembling
  • Hiding
  • Attempts to leave or escape
  • Compulsive licking and grooming
  • Self-injuring
  • Diarrhoea or vomiting
  • Reduced activity
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Depression Symptoms
  • Loss of appetite
  • Drastic weight loss
  • Reduced activity
  • Lethargy or more sleeping
  • Less social interaction
  • Refusal of water or treats
  • Excessive shedding
  • Sudden and drastic behaviour changes
  • OCD Symptoms
  • Repetitive or intensified behaviour
  • Self-mutilation
  • Excessive tail chasing
  • Decrease in playfulness
Remember that your vet is the one who can accurately diagnose an issue. If you think your dog is suffering from a mental health condition, be sure to consult your vet about their symptoms immediately.
What Can Cause Mental Illness in Dogs?
Like humans there are many ways in which a dog can experience events that affect his mental health. House moves, changes to their routines, a new dog/baby/partner, sickness and genetics can all play their part. The first piece of the puzzle to examine is the dogs environment. What may be causing him stress? Here are some common examples:
  • Pain or illness
  • Confinement
  • Physical disorders
  • Changes in routine
  • Fear inducing triggers

So how do we know if their mental health is suffering?

How can I Help my Dog?
The main factor is to observe your dog, watch his body language and learn to tell when he is happy, unhappy or stressed. Exercise and mental stimulation are incredibly important. Good diet and healthcare are also crucial. Fearful dogs often need space, not just from the object of their fear but somewhere to retreat to if they feel overwhelmed. Figure out what your dog gets pleasure from; which games does he enjoy? Where does he like to walk most? Find activities you can use to alleviate his stress and promote fun and enjoyment.
Dogs have evolved to connect well with humans and as we now often consider them part of our families, we should spend time getting to really understand them. Learn what their body language means, understand dog emotions, get inside their heads! Then we can truly begin to have happy and healthy relationships with our best friends.
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