Can Animals Get Depressed?

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In this blog, we will be answering the question, “Can animals get depressed? and will also cover depression in animals, diagnosis of depression in animals, the road to recovery, and answer frequently asked questions. 

Can Animals Get Depressed?

Yes, animals can also get depressed and you might notice a pattern of inactivity in them, less/no amount of play displayed by them, little/no interest in eating, etc. in your pet which points towards depression in your pet.

There has been a lot of research about depression in animals and we will cover it in the further sections but first let us understand what depression is and how can it affect your beloved animals too. 

What is Depression? 

Depression is a clinical mood disorder that is characterized by feelings of guilt, sadness, consistent low mood, loss of interest in activities, etc. for at least 2 weeks. At least that is the diagnostic definition and criteria for humans. Does it apply to animals as well?

Before answering that question, let us first try to understand a rational argument. 

We as arrogant humans would love to believe that only we have the mental capacity of thinking about abstract topics like the meaning of life, purpose, existence, etc. And hence only we have the intelligence to make decisions about our life, purpose, or even suicide.

To a certain extent we would accept that as we experience heartbreak, sadness, happiness, anger, annoyance, our furry friends can experience them too. We tend to underestimate animals. 

They can be as cruel as a nightingale who leaves her eggs in someone else’s nest or as kind and intelligent as dogs who know how to take care of and protect a human baby, at least as a watch-guard.

They can feel sad when you do not give them their favorite treat. They can feel lonely if you have gone out for too long. They can absolutely experience trauma if someone assumes them. They can have trust issues too. They can have boundary issues, just like us. Then why not this? Depression is said to be a human mental disorder. But the evidence says otherwise.

What does Research say about depression in animals?

Nicholas Dodman was the first scientist to put forth comparisons between human emotions and animal emotions. He was a graduate of Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine who moved to the United States in 1981 and quickly changed his focus from general veterinary medicine to animal psychology and behavioral pharmacology.

His research led him to assume that some of the dogs’ actions were similar to those of people suffering from mental illnesses. Dodman concluded that dogs may get depressed and worried based on what he knew about human behavioral symptoms. 

His thoughts, on the other hand, were scrutinized by his coworkers who argued: “Dogs don’t experience the same mental states and emotions that people do.”

Dogs and other animals are extremely sensitive to their owners’ states of mind. If you are sad, they will be able to immediately sense it and will try to help you feel better. Further back in history, René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician, and biologist, asserted that only humans had sentiments and conscious mental processes, and this belief has persisted. 

When Charles Darwin, the proponent of the theory of evolution, entered the picture, he said that animals’ emotional experiences are very similar to humans’.

Dodman was evidently on Darwin’s side. Given that dogs and humans have similar brain structures and brain chemistry, he reasoned that there was no reason to suppose that dogs couldn’t be depressed. 

Human depression, for example, is thought to be caused in part by hormonal and physiological changes, which can be reversed to some extent with antidepressant medicines. As a result, Dodman supplied antidepressants to the dogs, and the dogs’ moods improved.

Veterinarians eventually caught on, and drug companies began developing antidepressants specifically for dogs. Olivier Berton was an assistant professor of neuroscience in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He looked at research on rodents, primates, and fish who were uninterested in life. 

According to his research with rodents, rats who are ostracised from their social group or forced to dwell with larger animals who bully them stop exercising and eating. Normally, these rodents would go to great lengths to push a lever that dispensed a tasty treat or solve a maze, but depressed-like rodents simply did not seem to care and did not participate.

Berton explained in an interview, “Nonhuman primates provide some of the most compelling evidence. Trained observers can determine whether a monkey appears depressed based on behavioral observation. Because their emotional responses are so comparable to humans’, we can tell if an animal is upset merely by looking at their facial expressions or the way their attention is directed.”

How can we make a diagnosis of depression in animals?

Just like you should not try to diagnose yourself with the help of the internet of any physical or mental illness, you should not try to diagnose your furry friend either, let alone feed them your medicines. Go to a vet as soon as possible.

Therapy unfortunately is only designed to work for humans. Because we have the ability to articulate and communicate what we are feeling, the psychologist sitting in front of us will be able to make inferences and look at the blind spots that we fail to see. But what about animals? How do they get the therapy?

Obviously, they can’t and they won’t. We haven’t advanced to the level of understanding animal language yet. However, we definitely do have an understanding of what is the usual behavior pattern of our furry friends and what is not.

So anything unusual is the first red flag you need to look at and not ignore. It may subside or may not. 

Some of the most common warning signs you need to look into immediately are:

  • Your pet is lethargic
  • He/she has a lack of appetite (up to 42 hours is an alarming sign)
  • He/she is simply not playing in the manner in which he/she typically plays.

Kathleen Dunn, DMV, a veterinarian at the Pet Health Center at North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington, N.Y advises keeping an eye on your busy, healthy pet if they start moping or become irritated. Accidents in the house or outside the litter box can also indicate that your dog or cat is sad, according to Dunn.

Pet depression is diagnosed as a “diagnosis of exclusion,” which means your veterinarian will conduct tests to rule out medical causes for your pet’s gloomy behavior. After medical reasons have been ruled out, your veterinarian will investigate whether family changes or influences are to blame.

Road to Recovery for depression in animals

They say furry friends help people with depression get better. Perhaps, it is now your turn to return the favor.  Just as for humans, depression will not vanish overnight. It needs time, affection, attention, and medicine.

The specially designed drugs that we talked about in the previous section would be prescribed to your pet/s. And just as with humans, medication is not enough. Since therapy is ruled out, observation of the animals would help make inferences about their unusual behavior and if at all there is any improvement.

Is there something you can do to protect your best friend? Of course. And the recipe is easy too. You just need to be there. You need to involve them in your activities. Perhaps even take them out for a walk more often. Exposure to the sun will help them just as it helps to improve our mood. 

Take them to their species’ park, for example, a dog park. Having a social company would distract them and will also improve their mood. And lastly, take care of yourself too and don’t worry. Your furry friend will be back in no time.

Conclusion

We explored what depression is,  depression in animals, what does the research say about depression in animals, how to diagnose animals with depression, and how to help your animals to recover from depression. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Can Animals Get Depressed?

How do you know if an animal is depressed?

Animals exhibit depression symptoms that are comparable to those experienced by humans. Low activity levels, a loss of interest in previously loved activities, and a change in eating and/or sleeping patterns are all common signs. Aggressive behavior, such as unusual howling or whimpering, may be displayed by some animals.

What do animals do when they are depressed?

When animals are depressed or lonely, they are more likely to accidentally end their own lives. When a mate is lost, highly bonded animals modify their behavior. Dogs in such settings, for example, may get depressed and refuse food and attention until they eventually die.

What are the most depressed animals?

Lonely polar bear in an Argentine zoo.

Do dogs get Covid?

COVID-19 has infected pets all around the world, including cats and dogs, mostly following intimate contact with individuals who have the disease.

Can dogs sense suicidal thoughts?

If your dog has been trained to detect depression, the decline in serotonin will be associated with your sadness. Dogs can react in a calming and helpful manner when they detect your current mental state.

Will the dog forget its owner?

Even after long separations, dogs recognize and remember their owners.

References

Gammon, K. (2012, March 30). Can Animals Commit Suicide? Livescience.Com. https://www.livescience.com/33805-animals-commit-suicide.html

Ingber, S. (2021, May 4). Do Animals Get Depressed? Animals. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/121004-animals-depression-health-science

Neporent, L. (2014, May 28). Yes, Animals Get Depressed Too. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/animals-depressed/story?id=23897732

Puiu, T. (2016, September 22). Can animals get depressed too? ZME Science. https://www.zmescience.com/ecology/animals-ecology/animal-depression/

Villazon, L. (2020). Do animals get depressed? BBC Science Focus Magazine. https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/do-animals-get-depressed/

Wheeler, R. B. (2011, March 8). Pets Get Depressed, Too – Pet Health Center – Everyday Health. EverydayHealth.Com. 

https://www.everydayhealth.com/pet-health/pets-get-depressed-too.aspx

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