Question: Our Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Ollie, is very lethargic and is definitely off his food. He seems to have very little joy in life anymore. Is it possible that he's depressed? It may have something to do with the fact that our youngest daughter, who was his favorite playmate, has recently gone off to college. If he is depressed, what can we do about it?
CHR, London, UK
Answer: The answer is definitely yes, if Ollie is ordinarily more active with a normal appetite. Different animals exhibit different reactions to depression, so a good guide to identifying depression in your pet is to recognize out-of-the-ordinary behaviors. The most common signs are lethargy, lack of appetite, overeating, sleeping excessively, loss of initiative, moping, pacing, anxiety, aggression and even destructive behavior.
Some dogs may also stop playing, walking and participating in usually joyful activities. Vets have noted that becoming withdrawn or excessively vocalizing (barking, whining or crying) can also be signs of depression. Cats tend to show some additional signs, such as excessive grooming, not greeting their owners and hiding in strange places. Another sign is if your pet resorts to aggressive behavior or inappropriate urination and defecation.
Diagnosis of depression in pets
As sick pets tend to show many of the same symptoms as depression, it is important to consult a vet and first rule out any physical ailments or life-threatening medical conditions before assuming that a pet is suffering from depression. Depression tends to be diagnosed by vets through a process of elimination after ruling out the possible medical causes for the symptoms exhibited.
Make sure that Ollie undergoes a complete physical examination, with any necessary blood or other tests to rule out any medical reasons for the depression. And obtaining a very thorough history usually reveals a trigger in the form of an event that may have initiated the depression.
Treating depression naturally
In mild cases of depression, vets usually suggest some simple changes or common-sense interventions in a pet's lifestyle, which can make a huge difference.
Increased attention: Providing more attention to a pet, playing more games with them and cuddling them more can help. Going on walking trips or even a holiday with dogs is an especially good way to rebond with them.
Mental stimulation: Grief-stricken pets can be cheered up by hiding away things that remind them of the person or animal who is no longer around, as can distracting them with mentally stimulating activities like chew toys and games. Fishing-pole-style toys or even an aquarium filled with fish can lift the spirits of a depressed cat. And acquiring a new puppy or kitten can also help if the pet has lost its playmate or long-term animal companion.
Light treatment: Light is intimately tied to the functioning of the pituitary and endocrine glands. There is evidence that light stimulates the body to release chemicals that can uplift the moods of people,1 and pets are no different. Give Ollie plenty of opportunity to sunbathe on a sunny porch or garden.
Most responsible vets deter from using psychoactive drugs to treat depression in pets, mainly because there's very little research on the effect of these drugs on animals, and so few drugs are actually licensed for animal treatment. When they are used, the most commonly prescribed psychoactive drugs are alprazolam (Xanax), amitriptyline (Elavil, Levate), clomipramine (Anafranil), fluoxetine (Prozac) and selegiline.
However, most vets also understand that psychopharmacology can only be a valuable adjunct to more traditional environmental management and behavior-modification programs. And of course, all these drugs have side-effects and if used in the wrong combination can cause potentially fatal central nervous system toxicity.
Treatment with pheromones
Besides spending more time with Ollie, you may want to consider pheromones, a natural form of therapy based on chemical signals used by animals for communication. Two well-known varieties are Feliway (feline facial hormone) for cats and DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) for dogs. There's evidence documenting their effectiveness in alleviating many anxiety-based disorders in dogs, so they may help in depression.2
And they are so easy to use; they simply need to be sprayed or diffused into the air in the pet's environment. They're also relatively free of side-effects other than possibly confusing the pet by giving them mixed messages.
I've used the following alternative therapies to help dogs and cats who are listless and depressed:
Homeopathy: Homeopathic veterinarians like Dr Francis Hunter have used Ignatia amara and Nat mur successfully in several grief-stricken dogs.
Suggested daily dosage: Two 30C-strength pills or tablets once a day for one or two days.
Flower remedies: Flower essences like Gentian (for general depression), Gorse (for extreme depression), Star of Bethlehem (for grief) and Honeysuckle (for nostalgia) have worked well for depressed pets.
Dietary supplements: Royal Canin, the pet food brand, has a variety called 'Calm', which contains L-tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin.
Herbal remedies: St John's wort, skullcap and valerian, all herbs for depression and anxiety in humans, also work well in animals, at least according to anecdotal evidence. Macerated oils with catnip are believed to cause feline euphoria and to alleviate depression.
T-Touch: This massage technique helps release mood-elevating neurotransmitters and therefore supposedly has a powerful effect on depression, according to holistic vet Dr Mary Lee Nitscheke.
With your fingers, just move the skin clockwise one and a quarter circles every one or two seconds. Then move to another place. Focus on the face, neck and ears.
Energetic healing: Remote healing, Reiki and various forms of healing touch are based on the principle that the practitioner channels and directs universal life energy to the patient. Animal Reiki healers report amazing results in depressed animals. Internationally renowned animal healer Elizabeth Whiter documents several cases of grief-stricken pets who have recovered as a result of energetic healing, in her book The Animal Healer.
Sound therapy: Although not every pet responds to music, some respond to their favorite melodies. There's also special music for animals recorded at specific frequencies, which can relax them. One good example is Animal Whispers Sound Therapy by Elizabeth Whiter and Tim Wheater.
Depression is a natural emotion, but when it persists for a long time it can make a pet physically ill, so it's important to determine whether the depression has caused the illness or is a consequence of it. Once the cause has been established, it's possible to treat the depression quite easily in the majority of cases.
All the above common-sense interventions, behavioral modification techniques and complementary therapies should be attempted first before treating Ollie with psychoactive drugs that have questionable efficacy and dangerous side-effects.
Why your pet may be depressed
Grief. This is the most common cause of depression in animals. Death of a favorite family member, the loss of an animal playmate, divorce or family members moving out, as happened in your case, can all cause an animal to feel lonely and sad.
Changes in environment. Moving into a new home, a change of furniture, having to suddenly share your love with a new partner, a new baby or a new pet, even being placed in a kennel can cause your pet to become disoriented and feel lost and depressed.
Changes in schedule. Dogs used to their owner being at home with them can become depressed when he or she takes up a job. Separation anxiety can be a big trigger for depression.
Mental state of the owner. Dogs definitely pick up on the emotions of their owners. Depressed owners seem to have depressed pets.
Abuse. Most ill-treated pets are depressed.
Weather and seasonal changes. As with humans, seasonal affective disorder has been observed in dogs when winter begins. And prolonged bad weather and hurricanes that change atmospheric pressure impact the moods of pets as well.
Medical conditions. Most animals exhibit signs of depression when there's something physically wrong with them.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com