Depressed dog

As our dogs and cats have migrated from the barnyard to the backyard to the kitchen to the bed, we veterinarians have noticed that sometimes the concerns of our clients seem to be more human in nature when talking about our four-legged family members.

Before, when someone said to me that a dog or cat was “depressed,” I’d figure they meant he was lethargic, one of the many vague symptoms of what we veterinarians call the ADR (“Ain’t Doing Right") pet. But now, chances are decent they’re talking about the possibility of a mental illness and are worried that their pet may be clinically depressed.

Can Pets Really Be Depressed?

I think it’s possible pets can be depressed. After all, we know that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain that’s treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. I think it’s reasonable to think that this chemical imbalance occurs in animals other than humans. Do I know that based on research findings? Not really, and veterinarians are not currently able to assess or treat this condition, if it exists. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist in some pets. As a colleague of mine, world-famous veterinary cardiologist Dr. Paul Pion, co-founder of the Veterinary Information Network, is known to say, “What’s amazing about medicine is not what we know, but what we don’t know.”

Antidepressants are used in veterinary medicine, of course. Their use was pioneered by another well-known colleague, Dr. Nicholas Dodman at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. They aren’t used to treat depression, however, but many different kinds of behavior issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders and separation anxiety. When Dr. Dodman started using them in treating dogs, it was so cutting-edge that it made the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Now, it’s pretty routine, and most veterinary behaviorists have it in their arsenal.

At this time, however, if a pet were brought to me as “depressed,” I wouldn’t dismiss it as nonsense, but I still would have to look for issues better understood and treated by veterinary medicine. That takes me back to the ADR pet.

Stress Can Be a Real Problem

That doesn’t mean I think everything I see is purely a result of physical issues. For example, we know that some cats don’t do well with stress caused by changes in their environment, such as moving, or the addition of a new pet or new people to the household. It’s not uncommon for a stressed-out cat to start avoiding the litterbox, which is why we ask if there have been changes in the pet’s life when we start to work up a cat with this issue. We also hear anecdotal evidence of pets who grieve, and we don’t discount that as being “anthropomorphic.”

Ever since veterinary school, when I was first exposed to the late Dr. Leo Bustad, founder of the Delta Society, I have had a different view of animals, one that was born on our family’s farm but didn’t really “click in” until I was training for my DVM at Washington State University. Since then, learning about, sharing and celebrating what I call “The Bond” has been the foundation of my work for people, pets and the profession.

I even wrote a best-seller about what we know and what we suspect we know about animals, The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy. We have really just scratched the surface of what we know in this area.

Be There for Your Pet

We do know that pets help us with our mental challenges. Perhaps if our pets are having problems of their own, we can help them, too? I like to think that’s so. Until we know, I’ll be making sure I check for all the other things that could make a pet sick enough to be “depressed” in the eyes of the person who loves him.