Anxious-looking dog lying on bed
“Are my mental-health issues having a negative effect on my dog’s behavior?”

I am frequently asked this question by my clients. They want to know if their mental-health disorder is contributing to their dog’s behavior problem. There is no clear-cut answer because it really depends on the relationship between the client and the pet. However, there are a few general things you should know.

Mental Illness Is Not Contagious

First of all, depression or anxiety disorder is not a contagious disease. Depression is not something you can pass along to your pets. The expression of relief on most people’s faces when I tell them this is heartbreaking. No person can “give” their pet anxiety or depression. A pet who is exhibiting such behavior likely already had some propensity for the behavior. For example, some cats and dogs may have the genetic coding for anxiety already present. Sometimes the anxiety manifests due to the animal entering a certain developmental stage in life. Sometimes the intensity of the animal’s underlying anxiety increases due to his age or changes in the environment or life circumstances.

Dealing With Change

Just like people, certain pets are very resilient when it comes to adjusting to changes in life; others less so. When a person enters a rough stage in his or her life, their interactions with their pets may change. Someone might pay less attention to their dog, take him on fewer walks, not play with him as often or not maintain the same routine. Some dogs can be happy playing with just their toys or receiving fewer pats from their owner, but other dogs may experience more anxiety when the owner’s schedule of interactions changes. This may manifest in the pet exhibiting more attention-seeking behavior toward the owner. Or the pet may engage in more self-soothing behavior, such as licking the paws, chewing on toys or chewing on inappropriate objects around the house. (Although if your pet is exhibiting some of these behaviors, be sure to have him examined by your veterinarian first to rule out any medical problems that could explain these actions.)

Getting Through Tough Times

How can you help yourself and your dog when you are feeling blue?

1. Try to maintain the same routine every day. This does not mean you have to perform everything on a timed schedule. It just means that you should try to maintain a similar order from day to day as much as possible.

2. Take your dog on walks, if not daily, then several times a week. Getting out of the house is good for both owner and dog because fresh air and exercise are good for both brain and body. Even if you cannot go on your usual long walk, a quick jaunt around the neighborhood can be helpful. Being outside and sniffing all the scents left by the other people, pets and wildlife in the neighborhood will provide a lot of mental stimulation for your four-legged companion — and yourself. If your pet is a cat, try to reserve a little time for play with a favorite toy.

3. Introduce some food puzzle toys as a fun activity and to allow your pet to work for some of his food. This will provide more mental stimulation for your pet and hopefully he will spend less time engaging in inappropriate activities.

4. Work on brief training exercises using positive-reinforcement training. Teaching your dog a new trick for a few minutes a day can help take your mind off your worries and anxieties. The activity can also help reinforce a strong bond between you and your pet and will help improve the mental attitude of both pet and owner. 

5. If you and your pet have traditionally enjoyed cuddle time then please make sure you continue to give your pet individual attention. Various studies over the years have shown that petting a dog or cat can help lower blood pressure. It is a good activity for both owner and pet!

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