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Pets do not suffer from depression the way people experience depression. People with depression frequently report feeling sad, anxious, irritable, hopeless or have thoughts of suicide. They experience changes in their appetite, such as eating more or less. People may also experience a decreased interest in pursuing activities that they normally enjoy.
We suspect that our pets are suffering from depression based on nonspecific signs that persist for longer than one to two weeks and that cannot be explained by an underlying medical condition. These nonspecific signs may include changes in their activity level, sleep-wake cycle, appetite and interactions with their owners or housemates. Most commonly there is an event that triggers the onset, such as a profound loss of a housemate or owner or when relinquished for adoption in a shelter environment or rehomed to another family. Even seemingly normal events, such as the arrival of a new baby or the move of a household, can trigger changes in our pets. There is a period of adjustment, and we may surmise that perhaps there is a period of grief and depression.
If your pet exhibits any of these unusual signs, and/or you suspect he is depressed, he should be examined immediately by your veterinarian. Many times underlying health problems may produce similar physical signs. For example, both people and pets with arthritis or discomfort in a particular area of their bodies may be less active and restless at night. Animals with uncontrolled diabetes or dogs with hypothyroidism may appear lethargic. If your veterinarian cannot determine any physical problems after a physical examination and recommended testing, such as bloodwork and radiographs, then the diagnosis for depression may be more definitive. You can also keep a daily diary and record measurable behaviors, such as duration of a walk the pet goes on or how many times your pet will chase his toy or the fact that he won’t play with it at all.
Another suspicious sign of depression may be a pet with a healthy appetite who suddenly loses interest in eating. This may be the dog who usually cleans his bowl and asks for more but now just eats only 50 to 75 percent. Or the pet may just leave a couple of bites, which he previously never did. Sometimes the pet may still be interested in eating tempting treats, but overall his appetite is decreased. It is more obvious if your pet does not even touch his most favorite treat. It is very important to have your veterinarian examine your pet if you note any change in appetite to make sure he does not have any underlying problem. A change in appetite can be a sign of any number of diseases and medical conditions.
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