Helping Your Pets Get Through Depression

dog with feeding bowl

Despite the obvious differences, we’ve always found companionship in our pets. We amuse ourselves by giving them human attributes and peculiarities. Humans can learn to play the piano, read books, watch uplifting films to feel better, but cats can’t do those things. However, we make them appear to do so, with many viral videos and gifs making it appear that cats love musical instruments. But despite the musical talents of “keyboard cat”, making music could only lift the mood of humans and not their furry pets.

Of course, we want to help our pets. So, even when they seem sad, we take out our phones and post cute content on social media. On Facebook, a page is dedicated to a teary-eyed cat whose videos are set to various sad songs and is meant to make the situation light-hearted and fun. But even if we think our pets can’t feel sadness, they get depressed, too, according to scientists and veterinarians who did the research.

Depression in Animals: What We Know So Far

In humans, depression is diagnosed through our thoughts: what we choose to say and what we choose not to say. Since the language barrier prevents us from fully communicating with animals, we cannot assess their mental health in the same way.

Not all scientists believe depression exists in animals. But neuroscientist Olivier Berton from The University of Pennsylvania considers this a possibility. He and his colleagues reviewed previous studies of rodents, primates, and fish who exhibited signs of indifference to their environment and fellow animals.

The loss of interest in their surroundings is clinically referred to as anhedonia. It is one symptom animal behaviorists look out for when diagnosing depression. Researchers measure the loss of interest in food and social activities. They also check if sleep patterns are disturbed.

Berton notes that non-human primates show the most convincing symptoms of depression in animals. Behavioral specialists, through years of observing monkeys, have discovered when chimps are sad through changes in facial expressions and gaze. Our shared emotional behaviors may account for empathy.

In a book titled “Through the Window,” primatologist Jane Goodall recounts the story of Flint, a chimpanzee she believed to have suffered depression. After the passing of his mother Flo, Flint became withdrawn from his social sphere.

Signs of stress are most seen in animals in captivity. Ironically, chimpanzees used for science experiments became a primary source of data on post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) among animal captives. PTSD was also observed in animals captured for illegal trade.

Veterinary Medicine

It is common practice for veterinarians to prescribe antidepressants to pets when they show signs of behavioral disorders. Valium, a muscle relaxant used for muscle spasms and anxiety among humans, is also useful in animal surgery for its safe sedative properties.

In 2017, a survey found that 8% of dog owners and 6% of cat owners gave anxiety meds to their furry friends. Some of these medications are just variations of what we take. These animal prescriptions are likewise approved by the Food and Drug Administration for mental health use in pets.

Common Medications Prescribed by Veterinarians

sleepy kitten

For separation anxiety in dogs, Clomicalm is often prescribed. The drug Anipryl used to treat Parkinson’s disease in humans, can be used to treat canine cognitive dysfunction.

Can Depression Be Hereditary?

Yes, depression can affect hereditary traits, according to some scientists. In one study, African grey parrots were divided into two groups: in one group, individual parrots were subjected to social isolation; the other group housed parrots in pairs. The isolated parrots grew shorter and less developed telomeres than the parrots, which had a companion.

In humans, these kinds of experiments led to a relatively new branch of science. Called Epigenetics, this field studies how your environment can cause changes in your genes, as well as your child’s.

But for animals, most studies don’t go beyond birds and primates for test subjects. Further research hinders proper medication and diagnosis. So how can we make sure our pets are mentally healthy?

Mental Health: Cats vs. Dogs

Cats and dogs vary in personality. Thus, they respond to their environment differently.

Cats are creatures of habit. When something changes in their environment, they can be triggered.

If we only ate ham sandwiches for the rest of our lives, we would get sick of it. So we try to switch our cats’ food now and then. But unlike us, cats like the routine and predictability. So the change in cat food may even cause them stress. Thus, veterinarians often advise pet parents to stick to one cat food.

Cats are also very territorial, especially if not neutered or spayed. When threatened, they spray urine to mark their territory. Owners getting a new cat must gradually and carefully introduce the newcomer to avoid catfights and urine marks around the house.

Meanwhile, dogs are normally in chipper spirits and filled with enthusiasm. Being reserved and withdrawn from play are usually the symptoms to look out for.

Often, depression in dogs is due to physical pain, so further check-ups are necessary. As for environmental causes, the most common triggers are the loss of a companion animal and loss of an owner.

Consult with a Professional

As always, never self-medicate. While Valium has found use in feline medication, it should only be administered under the expertise of a veterinarian.

We know that a nurturing environment keeps the blues away. In dogs and cats, the laws of love and care aren’t that much different.

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