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Can Dogs Suffer From Mental Illness? Vet-Reviewed Canine Behavioral Problems

Brooke Billingsley

By Brooke Billingsley

sad labrador

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Dr. Marta Vidal-Abarca

BVSc GPCert (Ophthal) MRCVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Mental illness is an extremely complex thing. The signs of mental illnesses can appear across a broad range of behaviors, making diagnosing and treating mental illness quite difficult. Humans often look to dogs for comfort and companionship during times of emotional distress, including those caused by mental illness. What many people don’t realize, though, is that dogs can suffer from a spectrum of behavioral problems that could correlate to certain human mental illnesses.
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How Does Mental Illness Differ in Dogs from Humans?

The main thing that really sets mental health problems in dogs apart from mental illness in humans is the subjective experience. Humans can verbally and behaviorally communicate emotions, but dogs are limited in how they can express their feelings. Not only are they limited in this manner, but dogs also don’t process the world the same way that humans do. Their thought processes are less complex than those of humans, which can make some things scary to them that don’t make much sense to us.

Kayla Fratt, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant at Journey Dog Training put it best when she said, “It’s tricky to compare mental illness in animals to that of humans since we can’t ask dogs for their subjective experiences. However, there are many behavioral and even neurological patterns that are broadly similar.

“For example, it seems pretty clear that dogs can suffer from anxiety. These dogs, like humans with anxiety, live in apparently perpetual fear of something bad happening. This is different from just being afraid of a stimulus—it’s fear that the stimulus could appear.

“In many cases, good treatment is going to involve a mixture of behavioral wellness (exercise especially out in nature, mental enrichment, nutrition, training/communication) and pharmaceutical drugs and behavioral modification work. While some herbal supplements may help, generally exercise and enrichment are the ‘natural’ solutions that are most beneficial to help soothe a troubled mind.”

sad dog
Photo Credit: Pixabay

What Are Some Common Mental Illnesses in Dogs?

Just like people, dogs can suffer from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Separation anxiety seems to be one of the most common behavioral problems in dogs, along with compulsive disorders, phobias, and fear-related aggression. Dogs can even suffer from an illness called canine cognitive dysfunction, which is similar to dementia in humans. There is a neurological part of the disease, but it often manifests with signs that are like those that humans exhibit with mental illnesses and can cause anxiety and confusion. Just like in humans, dogs can have short-term or sudden onset of mental illness because of specific circumstances in their lives.

Here’s what Victoria Long from Central Park Paws had to say: “What we can see for ourselves is that certain situational [stressors] can cause a dog to react in a way that would lead us to believe that mental illness is a very real issue for dogs. For example, depression can be readily seen and is well documented when a new baby is brought home, a long-time companion passes away or they are put up for adoption for some reason or another. They can react to this in a number of ways, losing appetite, getting aggressive, anxious, or sleeping a lot.”

What Are Signs of Mental Illness in Dogs?

Any changes in your dog’s normal behavior are grounds for a vet visit in order to rule out underlying medical conditions. Some dogs that suffer from physical illness can manifest it through abnormal and erratic behaviors. Similarly, mental problems can manifest themselves with physical signs like excessive scratching, licking, drooling, and diarrhea.

Dr. Sharon L Campbell, DVM, Medical Lead & Behavior at Zoetis Petcare put the following information together to help identify signs of mental illnesses in dogs:

“Dogs that are suffering from separation anxiety get distressed and freak out whenever they’re left alone.

Here are some of the more common signs you’ll see:
  • ‘Accidents’ when they’re already potty-trained
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Chewing things they shouldn’t be
  • Trying to escape by scratching doors or windows
  • Whining, barking, or howling
  • Yawning, panting, or drooling
  • Licking their lips
  • Pacing, circling (not able to settle down)
  • Trembling
  • Chewing or licking their paws or tail”

This is not an all-inclusive list of signs that your dog may exhibit if they are experiencing a behavioral problem, though. If you’re unsure of a new behavior in your dog, talk to your vet. They will provide you with guidance and help you know if your dog needs behavioral or medical treatments.

dog hugging owner
Photo Credit: Bogdan Sonjachnyj, Shutterstock

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How Can I Help My Dog With Mental Illness?

The first step in helping your dog with their mental illness is a veterinarian visit. Some dogs need short-term medication while other problems are worked through, and other dogs will require lifelong medication therapy to help control the signs of their behavioral issues. Improving the environmental factors that may be contributing to the signs of your dog’s mental health problems can make a huge difference in how they feel.

If your dog is stressed by another pet or loud children in the home, provide a quiet, safe space for them to spend time. Dogs with separation anxiety may need to be slowly acclimated to you being away for longer and longer periods of time until they are comfortable. Exercise, play and games, praise, treats, positive reinforcement, and one-on-one time together can all help your dog work through the signs of their behavioral issues.

Keep in mind that your dog’s problem may not be permanent. It may be situational, so be patient as you work through these issues together. Jen Jones, professional dog trainer, behavior specialist, and founder of Your Dog Advisor summed it up nicely when she said, “Just like with humans, a dog’s mental health can be ever-changing depending on his environment, which is why all dogs require ongoing care and nurturing both mentally and physically.”

vet checking up golden retriever
Photo Credit: Elnur, Shutterstock

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In Conclusion

If your dog is exhibiting signs of mental illness, we highly recommend that you talk to your veterinarian for guidance. Mental illness can be a difficult thing to manage, even in pets. Professional advice, patience, and a willingness to try different therapies and medications can all help make a difference in your dog’s life.

Featured Image Credit: Amy_Gillard, Pixabay

Brooke Billingsley

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Brooke Billingsley spent nine years as a veterinary assistant before becoming a human nurse in 2013. She resides in Arkansas with her boyfriend of five years. She loves all animals and currently shares a home with three dogs, two cats, five fish, and two snails. She has a soft spot for special needs animals and has a three-legged senior dog and an internet famous cat with acromegaly and cerebellar hypoplasia. Fish keeping...Read more

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