Dog (and cat) Days

Science shows that pets can help people suffering from depression; but did you know that pets can get depressed too?

Ever since mankind began domesticating animals thousands of years ago, a special bond has existed between us and those animals we welcome into our homes, especially dogs and cats. According to the American Pet Products Association, 46.3 million American households own at least one dog, and 38.9 million own at least one cat. But beyond the pleasure and unconditional love we get form these furry friends, science is now showing that their presence in our homes and in our lives can actually make us healthier. More interesting still is the news that having a pet can actually help alleviate anxiety and depression.

For a variety of reasons, depression has reached epidemic proportion in United States. One in every three women and one in every five men will suffer from major depression in their lifetime. But pet owners, a number of studies have shown, are 40 percent less likely to develop anxiety and 30 percent less likely to develop Depression.

In addition to the fact that playing with and caring for pets seems to reduce stress and blood pressure, pet ownership reduced loneliness, and provided other benefits that helped people lessen their chances of slipping into Depression.

The evidence of the beneficial effects of the human-pet bond is so strong that the National Institute of Mental Health recognizes pet therapy as a type of treatment for addressing several mood disorders.

But for all the good our pets can do for us, few people realize that their pets seem to be vulnerable to depression too.

According to Dr. Bonnie Beaver, Executive Director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, veterinarians don’t really know if animals suffer from depression in the exact same way people do, but in clinical practice, there are a few situations where that is the only explanation. “It’s hard to know because we can’t ask them,” Dr. Beaver explains.

Dogs in particular –maybe because they are so attuned to us- seem to occasionally suffer from depression, especially when a radical or significant change has taken place in their lives.

The symptoms of depression in dogs are very similar to those experienced by humans: they become withdrawn, inactive; they don’t participate in things they once enjoyed; and their eating and sleeping patterns change. As for what bring on depression in dogs, experts point to things such as a move to a new home, a new spouse or baby in the house, of the addition of a new pet who seems (to the dog, anyway) to be getting all the attention. The two most frequent causes, however, seem to be the loss of either an owner or a pet companion.

As with people, there are a number of therapies that seem to help bring dogs out of depression, so veterinarians recommend seeing a specialist if your pet begins to act strangely after a major event in his or her life.

As for cats, depression seems to be less frequent in them than in dogs –maybe because, as the old adage has it Dogs have owners; cats have staff- but over a decade ago animal behaviorists began documenting this condition in felines. Cats seem to suffer depression for the same reasons dogs do, but the symptoms are different. According to Dr. Katherine Houpt at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in addition to a change in activity levels and a loss of appetite, cats often display depression through vocalizations. There is even a checklist people can reference if they think their cat might be depressed.

Depression can be a serious condition that can have severe negative impacts on sufferers’ lives. But experts agree that companionship, and the love and affection that goes with it, can be a potent remedy be they human, canine, or feline.