The stigma surrounding pet mental health is starting to wane as the topic is more acceptable to discuss and treatments have become more accessible. This is no surprise, being that 1 in 5 adults in the United States is affected by mental health conditions. But humans aren’t the only ones whose mental health can be afflicted, and we now know mental disorders in dogs are a real issue. Our canine friends also show signs of distress caused by common conditions like OCD, depression, and anxiety.

A study conducted by Emory University scientists in 2013 showed that dogs’ brains are strikingly similar to the human brain – especially when it comes to emotions. Like humans, dogs who suffer from conditions like anxiety or depression can self-harm and severely damage their overall health by not eating or exercising. If you have a dog with OCD, they will repeat certain actions excessively like humans with the same condition tend to do.

Unfortunately, dogs can’t tell us when they’re feeling sad or anxious; however, they will show physical signs of distress that can let their humans know something is wrong. Understanding anxiety and other mental health disorders in dogs, their symptoms, and how to effectively treat these conditions is important for pet owners to know.

How Mental Health Affects Dogs

Dog relaxes on the couch

Photo by Robert Larsson on Unsplash.

Some pet owners have the tendency to brush off seemingly harmless behaviors in their dogs. Often, a dog’s anxieties are treated as quirks or innocent singular acts, so long as they aren’t harming anyone else.

But dogs’ mental health disorders can have longer-lasting and much more detrimental effects on the pup itself. According to Nancy Dreschel of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Pennsylvania State University for Psychology Today, the more fearful and anxious a dog behaved around strangers, the shorter its lifespan was.

Since most pet dogs do not have an autopsy after death, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how some pups pass away. However, there are mental health-related conditions that can be visible to humans before their dog’s death. For instance, research shows that fearfulness, separation anxiety, and other forms of psychological stress cause various skin problems in dogs.

Dr. Dreschel is quoted as saying, “It was hypothesized that stress caused by living with anxiety or fearfulness has deleterious effects on health and lifespan in canines. The findings indicate that fear, specifically the fear of strangers, is related to shortened lifespan”.

Common Dog Mental Health Conditions

Most people aren’t aware dogs can suffer from the same mental health conditions that humans can. In general, pet owners concern themselves with the physical health of their dog but don’t know how to pick up on signs that their pup’s mental health may be suffering. There are a number of mental health conditions dogs can experience, but these are some of the most common disorders found in canines:

Dog with a scarf shows emotional expressions

  • Separation Anxiety

A common condition in dogs, separation anxiety is a disorder that causes pups to panic when they suspect they will be left alone. Dogs with separation anxiety often show it by frantically barking, destructive behavior (chewing shoes, furniture, getting into the trash), and even housebreaking accidents.

  • Social Anxiety

Dogs often develop social anxiety when they’ve previously experienced neglect; for instance, dogs who have been rescued from puppy mills, were strays, or saved from situations of abuse or neglect. This social condition can cause dogs to experience crippling anxiety when being around other dogs or humans and can even lead to aggression.

  • Noise Anxiety

Loud noises are startling for anyone, but especially for animals who don’t understand the context of the chaos. Animals suffering from noise anxiety show a lot of similar signs to those with social or separation anxieties. A sudden change in behavior when thunderstorms, fireworks, or other loud noises are occurring is a clear sign that your dog is stressed under those circumstances.

  • Depression

Like humans, there are physical signs that your dog is experiencing depression. Since our pets can’t tell us what they’re feeling, it’s important to take note of their behavior. If your pup becomes withdrawn, appears sadder, and is more lethargic than usual, they may be in a depressive state.

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can mean many things but to describe it simply, it’s when a dog’s behavior is out of context, strange, and directed toward objects. If your dog is excessively repeating certain obsessive behaviors (tail chasing, digging, biting their food bowl, etc.) then it’s possible they are experiencing OCD.

Dog Mental Illness Symptoms

It can be hard to spot a mental health disorder in an animal, and just because they have one symptom doesn’t mean they are experiencing the full condition. Abnormal behavior from your dog should not be ignored because whether it’s a mental health condition or a temporary ailment, you should always know your pet is happy and healthy.

All these symptoms have been attributed to the various mental health conditions listed above. Keep in mind there are many, perhaps short-term, reasons for dog anxiety or sadness. Remember that your veterinarian is the one who can accurately diagnose an issue. If you think your dog is suffering from a mental health condition, be sure to consult your vet about their symptoms immediately.

Causes of Mental Illness in Dogs

Mental illness in dogs like humans

Like humans, any number or combination of things can be attributed to mental health disorders found in dogs. Major life changes (a dog can develop depression after a baby is brought home), sickness (some pet owners report dog depression after surgery), and genetics all affect and contribute to mental health disorders.

It’s important to assess your pup’s environment to see what may be causing them stress or harm that could ultimately contribute to their suffering. While the reasons are not always obvious, here are some common causes of mental disorders in dogs:

  • Illness and physical pain
  • Kenneling and confinement
  • Degenerative issues
  • Anatomic disorders
  • Toxic issues
  • Abnormal nervous system activity
  • Autism

How to Treat Mental Health Disorders in Dogs

How to treat mental health disorders in dogs

Treating mental health disorders is a journey that requires close attention, patience, and a bit of trial and error. Below are some of the ways mental health disorders in dogs can be treated:

  • Exercise & Mental Stimulation

A sedentary lifestyle can lead to anxiety and depression in dogs, which can often cause erratic or destructive behavior. Making time to exercise your dog and providing mental stimulation can help prevent these behaviors.

  • Massage & Body Awareness

A gentle massage can help ease an anxious dog (so long as you research safe and effective methods of doing it!). In addition to massages, dogs respond well to body awareness exercises, strength training, and conditioning classes to help them feel more confident and aware of their body and actions.

  • Natural or Prescribed Medicines

Some mental health conditions are brought on by physical pain a dog may be experiencing. In this case, owners may want to consider a form of pain management, which may mean getting a prescription from your veterinarian for doggie painkillers. For humans that prefer holistic remedies, natural products like CBD oil can be used as a treatment for dogs with anxiety.

  • Space

As pet parents, you may be tempted to smother your pup with affection if you suspect they are suffering from depression. Too much attention can lead to more anxiety for dogs, so sometimes it’s best to give them their space.

  • Pursue Their Interests

Letting your pup pursue the activities they love will help keep their spirits high. If your dog likes to chase things, start playing a game of fetch every day. If they like chewing, invest in some high-quality chew toys. Learning how to treat dog anxiety may be as simple as discovering the activities your pup enjoys.

  • Regular Vet Visits

One of the worst things you can do (for your dog, and for yourself) is ignoring a problem in hopes it will diminish with time. Regular trips to your veterinarian are helpful in two major ways:

  • You will have peace of mind that your dog is happy and healthy, and your chance of catching or preventing illnesses early on will increase.
  • It’s helpful to chat with an expert on a regular basis about any inconsistencies in your dog’s behavior, so no problem goes unsolved for too long.

Dogs are not unlike their humans, which is why we consider them part of the family. As an educated pet owner, it’s important to be aware of dog panic attack symptoms, signs your pup is depressed, and other indicators of mental illness in dogs. Knowing what signs to look for and how to properly treat your dog’s condition is the first step on the journey to a happy and healthy pup.

The information provided on this website is made available for educational purposes only. It should in no way be substituted for professional veterinary assessment of each individual patient by a suitably qualified veterinary surgeon or veterinarian.