Recently, I answered questions from a New York Times science writer who inquired about depression in dogs for an article she was writing. The short article received a lot of attention, so I decided to expand on the topic for my readers.
Dogs Have Feelings Too
Depression is a specific psychiatric diagnosis in humans. If you look at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) definition of depression, many of the symptoms of depression cannot be applied to dogs, since they revolve around feelings. While we believe dogs have feelings, they cannot articulate sadness, helplessness, pessimism or suicidal thoughts as would humans suffering from clinical depression.
Yet, there are some signs of depression in dogs similar to those experienced by humans. Their owners may notice abrupt changes in behavior including irritability, loss of interest in activities, decreased energy and changes in appetite, all of which may signify depression. Dog owners frequently report these symptoms in their dog when a child in the family goes away to college, a favorite human or animal family member dies or the family moves to a new home. But because these are non-specific findings, they could be attributed to medical conditions as well. So it is wise to bring your pet to a veterinarian whenever you see behavioral changes in order to rule out illness.
Depression Means Two Things
Because veterinarians use the term “depression” in a different way than physicians do about their patients, some pet owners may misunderstand a diagnosis of depression. Veterinarians use “depressed” to describe one of five levels of consciousness in their four-legged patients:
- Normal. Of course there are many variations of normal between pets of the same breed. Veterinarians will require input from owners to determine if the pet is behaving in its normal manner.
- Depressed, dull, quiet. These pets prefer to sleep and have responses to stimuli that are appropriate. Animals diagnosed with a disease may be dull quiet, or depressed. A thorough examination of a pet with these signs and symptoms is required to rule out behavior resulting from a change in environment or illness.
- Disoriented, demented. This is similar to a dull animal, but responses to stimuli are inappropriate. Pets may be hyperactive, hysterical or irritable.
- Stuporous, obtunded. These pets do not respond to normal stimuli but will respond to strong, noxious stimuli such as a toe pinch.
- Comatose. These pets are unresponsive to all stimuli.
Not Just Depression
The NIH says depression in humans is often associated with other mental health disorders such as anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders. Veterinarians do diagnose obsessive compulsive disorders, PTSD, aggression, separation anxiety, and noise phobia (commonly fear of thunderstorms) in dogs and urine spraying and predatory aggression in cats. These disorders are commonly treated with antidepressants and behavioral modification therapy, suggesting depression may also be associated with these other mental health disorders in pets.
Antidepressants for Your Dog and Cat
Some of the antidepressants veterinarians use in pets include:
- Clomipramine [Clomicalm®] is approved by the FDA for treatment of separation anxiety in dogs.
- Fluoxetine [Reconcile®] is approved by the FDA for treatment of separation anxiety in dogs and contains the same active ingredient as Prozac®.
- Selegiline (L-deprenyl) [Anipryl®] is approved by the FDA for treatment of cognitive dysfunction in dogs.
- Nortriptyline, amitriptyline [Elavil®] and doxepin are not FDA approved for use in dogs or cats, but are frequently prescribed by veterinarians “off-label.”
If your pooch is punky or your cat is catatonic, it is important to find out the cause. Have them checked by their veterinarian immediately.