Mental Health and Illness in Dogs: How to Treat Them

09 May, 2020
Dogs not only can suffer from stress, but also from anxiety and depression. As soon as we detect this, it's essential to implement a good strategy to treat them properly.
 

Things like mental health and illness are real for our dear pets. Dogs, like any other animal with a highly developed brain and a set of neurotransmitters responsible for emotions, can suffer from mental problems.

These pathologies related to the dog’s psychology vary a lot. Similarly to humans, a dog’s mental health and illness won’t evolve in the same way for every individual. For instance, there are some dogs that are more affected by separation anxiety than others, as well as those who have been locked up or suffer from phobias.

Below, we’ll cover some examples of mental illnesses in dogs, along with their possible treatments. However, these should always be carried out under a professional veterinarian’s supervision.

Separation anxiety in dogs

A dog suffering from separation anxiety.

One of the main ailments that dog owners report in veterinary clinics is the separation anxiety suffered by their dogs. Whenever the pet owner leaves home and the dogs are left alone, they usually behave in ways that lead to complaints from neighbors. Sometimes, this results in the owners abandoning their pets.

Some of this negative behavior can be:

 
  • Eating non-edible things
  • Uncontrolled barking
  • Tearing the house’s furniture apart
  • Urination and defecation anywhere inside the house

These kinds of behavior make their owners mad and, in most cases, they don’t know what to do. In addition, sometimes the owners will even try some things that actually worsen the animal’s condition.

During episodes of anxiety, the dog finds itself in a very elevated state of stress and is unable to manage frustration and may feel afraid.

Self-control as a tool

According to recent studies, animals manage emotions better if they feel they’re in control. For example, sometimes the dog owner will try to hide the fact that they’re leaving the house. As a result, when they get back and find out their dog has done something they shouldn’t have, they don’t even greet them. In sum, these factors make the dog’s anxiety episode even worse.

To treat separation anxiety in dogs, we must first improve the pet’s self-control ability. We can achieve this by working with smelling exercises where the dog must use his nose to find a prize.

On the other hand, we must also train the dog to get used to us leaving the house. For instance, here’s a small exercise that lasts no more than 5 minutes.

We’ll leave the house, leaving a yellow handkerchief in the dog’s sight. After some minutes, we’ll come back in greeting the dog quietly and taking away the handkerchief. We’ll repeat this exercise every day for quite some time. Moreover, when we go away for longer periods of time, we’ll leave a handkerchief of a different color.

 

Contact is important

The most important thing is to always greet the dog on our return. If they’re very anxious and we don’t even look at them, we’ll increase their anxiety and frustration even more.

In the case, if we’re going to be out for long we can leave them playing a smelling game so that they’ll be well entertained and mentally occupied.

Repetitive patterns and destructive behavior

Stereotypic behaviors are a set of repetitive and sequence-like behaviors that serve no apparent purpose. You wouldn’t normally observe these behaviors in natural habitats. In addition, they appear as a result of domestication and, above all, confinement.

On the other hand we have destructive behavior, which is also an obsessive behavior pattern. However, this behavior includes self-harm in the animal and the risk of physical damage is greater.

Moreover, dogs will show these types of behavior only when locked up for long periods of time. This is typical in kennels and dog breeding grounds. Therefore, when we observe repetitive behavior in dogs we can easily determine that the animal’s well-being is at risk and something just isn’t right.

The only way to treat this behavior is through environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment consists of arranging the place where the animal lives so that it resembles its natural habitat. In addition, toys that help reduce boredom levels are also useful. We can also use food as an environmental enrichment factor.

 
A rather anxious dog under the couch.

Phobias: dogs suffer them too

Phobias are very strong anxiety disorders that dogs can also suffer. They consist of the irrational fear of social and non-social situations that can strongly frighten a dog, similarly to what happens with humans.

Dogs that often suffer from these kinds of irrational fears are usually those who haven’t had a proper social development during their post-weaning stage. In addition, dogs that have lived in cages most of their lives can also develop phobias, such as dogs used for breeding or hunting dogs.

We can treat canine phobias using the help of drugs. However, it’s very important to consult an animal expert like a canine educator who can guide us towards the best therapy for our dog. Desensitization, for instance, involves the introduction and gradual increase of the anxiety-causing stimuli in order to reduce the dog’s stress response.

For any mental health and illness treatments

We always highly recommend getting professional advice before attempting any methods to treat your dog’s ailments. We hope you found this article useful and wish you and your dear pet long-lasting health. Until next time!

 
  • Bloom, T., & Friedman, H. (2013). Classifying dogs’(Canis familiaris) facial expressions from photographs. Behavioural processes, 96, 1-10.
  • Llopis, M. Á. S. ¿Qué son las estereotipias?.
  • McMillan, F. D., Duffy, D. L., & Serpell, J. A. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’in commercial breeding establishments. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135(1-2), 86-94.
  • OSTROSKI, G., ALVAREZ, F., RISSO, A., PELLEGRINO, F., MARCHIONNI, M., PRÍO, V., & CORRADA, Y. ACTIVIDAD FÍSICA PARA EL CONTROL DE ESTEREOTIPIAS EN CANINOS.