The Many Faces of Mental Illness in Pets

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness (44.7 million in 2016). To be sure, many people struggle with some form of mental illness or know someone who has. But do our pets suffer from the same types of conditions?

Whether or not mental illness affects animals is hard to pinpoint. After all, we can’t ask our pets how they’re feeling. However, there are certain behavior patterns that lead veterinarians to diagnose mental illness in pets. In some cases, they may even prescribe medication to alleviate certain symptoms.

Depression in Pets

Many pet owners report their pet being “depressed,” particularly following a major life change (such as a move or death in the family) or during the winter months. Depressive symptoms in pets are similar to those found in humans, including loss of appetite and lack of interest in play or other activities.

Humans share many components of brain chemistry with animals (particularly dogs), including the hormones melatonin and serotonin. These chemicals help regulate mood and can be affected by outside influences, such as sunlight or lack of sleep.

Separation Anxiety in Pets

Diagnosing separation anxiety in pets is relatively straightforward and very common. Pets who suffer from this disorder generally exhibit a series of dramatic behaviors immediately after their owner leaves the house. This includes excessive barking/howling, clawing at the door/windows, house soiling, and destructive digging or chewing.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

For humans, obsessive compulsive behaviors are related to thought processes, but since we don’t know what pets are thinking, it’s impossible to conclude that a pet has OCD. However, we do know pets are capable of obsessive behaviors, such as spinning, chasing their tail, barking, chewing, or licking a specific toy or body part.

Combating Mental Illness in Pets

Dealing with mental illness in pets can be tricky, especially when a clear diagnosis is unable to be made. However, the following tips can help ease the behavioral issues and other symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and compulsion:

  • Exercise – The benefits of daily exercise and its effect on mental illness cannot be overstated. Whether it’s a daily walk, game of fetch, or play session with a feather-chase toy, commiting to daily exercise is key to combating mental illness in pets.
  • Enrichment – Life inside the same four walls can get boring, and bored pets are more prone to depression, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors. Chew toys, food puzzles, obedience training, and interactive games, such as hide-and-seek, are good ways to provide mental enrichment for pets.
  • Attention – Taking time for one-on-one interaction with your pet each day can help alleviate feelings of sadness or loneliness. If your pet is home alone for long periods of time, enlist the help of a friend, neighbor, or professional dog walker. Be careful not to lavish attention on a pet only when they’re sad or anxious, as this may reinforce behaviors.
  • Outside help – Just like people, pets sometimes need additional help to feel better. Pheromones, such as Adaptil for dogs and Feliway for cats, can be added to your pet’s environment to help create feelings of well being. Pets who suffer from severe anxiety may benefit from a prescription medication (ask your veterinarian for more information).

If you’re concerned about your pet’s behavior, please don’t hesitate to contact the team at Schertz Animal Hospital. We’re always here for you and your pet!