Thankfully, mental health has become an increasingly open topic and although it’s still not easy, people are now more able to speak up than ever before. Unfortunately, our dogs still have to rely on more subtle ways to communicate their feelings and if we’re not paying attention, it can be easy to miss the signs that actually our poor pup is not feeling too chipper.
Seriously unhappy or just an ‘off’ day?
Just like us, our dogs have different moods, so sometimes how they feel and behave one day is different to the next. The important thing to note is whether these different moods are within the spectrum of their normal behaviour and whether these ‘off’ days are just every now and again, or whether your dog can’t seem to shake it off.
Spot the signs
Lots of the signs that our dogs are unhappy are similar to the signs we would see in ourselves. As one of the people closest to your dog, you are best-placed to spot deviations from their normal behaviour. Notice if you dog starts:
- Sleeping more/seems less excited when you come home. Dogs tend to sleep while we’re out, but if they aren’t keen to get up and don’t seem excited to see you, something could be wrong. Restlessness is another sign of distress, so watch to see if your dog settles well, or keeps getting up and lying back down.
- Excessively licking his/her paws. This is a soothing behaviour and is not a problem in moderation but if your dog performs this gesture excessively, take note.
- Losing his/her appetite. This might be part of a wider trend of your dog losing interest in toys and activities that used to interest him/her. Alternatively, the phenomena of ‘comfort eating’ is not unique to humans; some dogs will seek to comfort themselves by eating more. If your dog does suddenly experience a change in appetite, it’s important to see the vet.
- Seeking more time alone. Sometimes your dog will seem to be actively avoiding or hiding from you, other family members and household pets.
It can be helpful to have a look at your dog’s eyes. Pay attention to the way they change during the day so you know what their normal shape is, then you’ll be able to spot any deviations from their normal shape and be more likely to know what that change means. It’s well known that people can hide many things with a smile, but that their eyes always tell the truth – so perhaps the eyes are the window to our dog’s soul too.
Why is your dog unhappy?
Most commonly, there is an event which triggers a period of depression in your dog’s life; things like re-homing, time in a shelter or the loss of an owner or fellow pet. Often we also see what could be described as a period of ‘adjustment’ with changes like the arrival of a new baby or moving house.
It can also be loneliness, if you lead a busy life and your dog is left alone for much of the day, or, as mentioned above, a fellow pet has recently passed away. Sometimes our pets seem to know their own time is up. If your pet is very elderly, consult your vet to ensure they’re not suffering.
Another potential consideration is Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, which is a type of depression associated with a lack of exposure to sunlight.
The transition away from the lighter, brighter days of summer can be a painful one and some dogs as well as people suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As autumn and winter settle in, look out for behavioural and physical changes in your dog, including lethargy, neediness, aggression and changes in appetite and toilet habits. In severe cases, your dog might also experience hair loss.
What should you do?
If your dog is exhibiting unusual behaviour, see your vet to rule out any medical cause. Lots of physical ailments cause your pet to exhibit similar signs to that of depression so it’s important to establish that your pet is physically healthy, first and foremost. Keep a note of their behaviours to take with you to the vet.
If your pet does have depression, one of the most important things you can do is show them some extra love. (In fact whatever is wrong with them, extra love and attention never hurts). Exercise is also very important; it’s a wonderful mood booster and gets those feel-good endorphins pumping. If it’s SAD, get them outdoors during the day. This can be as simple as taking them for their walk at midday or in the morning rather than late at night – just make sure they see as much daylight as possible.
If you think their depression is a sign of loneliness or boredom, start enriching their environment – new toys (especially if you play with them together), a new walk route or perhaps a new training class (or teaching them new tricks by yourself!) will all hopefully give your dog a new lease of life.