Depression In Pets - Not All In The Mind

 

18-04-15

Thirty one years ago I saw a Boxer, who was steadily losing weight.  The puzzling thing was, Bella was still eating normally, her diet hadn’t changed, there was no vomiting or diarrhoea, and no physical abnormalities, other than increasingly prominent bones.

Investigations over several weeks had proved fruitless.  All the blood tests were normal.   X-rays likewise.  Stool samples had been sniffed, smeared on a slide and stained, cultured on plates, and inspected for parasites - all to no avail.  In short, there appeared to be no physical or physiological reason for Bella’s continued, steady decline.

With no other avenues of investigation left to explore, an operation was performed to examine all her abdominal organs, in case that provided any clues.  Once again, everything appeared fine.  Before the incision was closed, tiny, full thickness sections of bowel tissue were removed from various points along the small intestine, in the hope that histology would reveal microscopic abnormalities that weren’t visible to the naked eye.

When the histopathology report came back, stating that the intestinal biopsies were healthy, we found ourselves well and truly at a dead end - until that is, new information surfaced, which put everything in a new light.

Not long before the Bella’s problem began, there were 3 Boxers living in the house, all happily getting along.  And then, the eldest one died.  As old as she was, she was still ‘the boss’, who kept the other two in check, whenever any squabbles broke out.  Shortly after this, a battle of wills began, which was quickly won by the older bitch.  Despite clearly being ‘top dog’, she would at intervals pounce without warning on Bella with venom, drawing blood, and continuing her attack until physically hauled away by her distressed owners.

It was a difficult decision to make, but with no other explanation for Bella wasting away, other than this bullying, the other dog was re-homed.  Within a few days, the difference in Bella was astonishing.   Back was the mischievous sense of fun Boxers are renowned for.  Playing became a passion again, and the more her mood lifted, the better her body condition became.  Several weeks later she was back to her ‘old self’.

As a young Vet, not long out of University at the time, I learnt two important lessons.  Firstly, that a pet’s mental and emotional state can profoundly affect their physiology and physical health - even to the point of causing serious illness.  Secondly, that sometimes it’s not until after a pet’s mood or general demeanour has improved following the successful resolution of a problem, that it becomes clear just how stressed, or depressed they were.

So what are the common causes of depression in pets and what are the signs to look for?

Grief

Dogs and cats like people, can form strong, loving bonds with human and animal companions.  Separation from those they love, whether short-term due to illness or holidays, or long-term as a result of death in the family, often results in depression.  Common signs are loss of appetite; sleeping more than usual; spending more time alone; hiding away; less interest in playing or exercising; a general air of sadness; wandering around aimlessly; searching for the missing companion, and forlorn whimpering or meowing.

Temperament is an important factor here too.  Sensitive, mild-mannered and demonstrative pets, often appear more depressed, than those with a stoic, independent, excitable, or reactive nature.  This doesn’t necessarily mean, that the sadness of those in the latter category, is any less keenly felt.

 

One little cat called Spike for example, showed in a very understated way, how much he missed his owners whenever they went on holiday.  Despite being well cared for by the rest of the family while ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ were abroad, he would mope around for weeks, until a magical sixth sense told him they were heading home.  He would then sit by the telephone, visibly brighter, waiting for the call from the airport to announce that they were back in the UK!

An elderly rescue dog called Whiskey on the other hand, immediately went downhill, when his canine best friend was put to sleep.  The two of them had been inseparable for more than 10 years, and no amount of consolation, or tempting with favourite pastimes or treats, lifted the heavy cloud hanging over him.  In the end, treatment with natural remedies, which helped his emotional wounds heal, put the wag back into his tail.

Illness

Hunter was a maniac of a dog!  He loved his family fiercely, and warned everyone else off - humans and animals alike - with an equal passion!  He came to us for homeopathy after being diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer of the lymph glands) and being given just 4 months to live.  With his rather ‘rabid’ nature, and a willingness to defend hearth and home against all comers, he wasn’t typical of a dog who was depressed.  As his condition improved however, the striking uplift in his mood, revealed how ‘low’ he had been.

 

This type of depression, is commonly seen in pets who are ill.  It’s often not recognised however, until mental and emotional well-being have improved, and the positive changes in a pet are evident.

Another example of this, is cognitive dysfunction syndrome, (CDS) -  a condition which tends to affect older pets, when brain function becomes impaired.  Many of the signs are typical of depression, such as confusion; disorientation; loss of interest in normal activities; a disinclination to interact with people and other pets they know, and less awareness of their surroundings.  Supplementing the diet with pure, natural medium chain triglycerides (present in Slick and Sleek) which provide a readily available source of extra energy to the brain, can bring about a dramatic improvement in the mental health of these pets.

Drugs

Some of the drugs used to treat dogs and cats, can cause or contribute to depression in their own right.  Corticosteroids for example, are renowned for making some pets euphoric, and others depressed.  Codeine based medications used for pain relief, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs  (NSAID’s) commonly prescribed for various forms of arthritis, can have a similar effect on sensitive pets.  It is important therefore, whenever a pet is on medication and their general demeanour or behaviour changes for the worse, to consider whether drug-induced depression might be the cause.

Praise, Play, Loving Contact And Positive interaction

Gorse was a gun dog, blessed with a magnificent leonine coat - the sort that any Golden Retriever would be proud of.  Underneath it however, he was a little thinner than he should have been - even accounting for his tremendous work rate, and the restricted rations he was on.  He was also starting to pass the occasional porridge-like stool, which was something he had never done, despite having the Retriever-like tendency to eat everything under the sun.

 

To cut a long story short, Gorse turned out to have protein losing enteropathy - a serious disease, which causes the bowels to become ‘leaky’ and lose protein in the stools.  Weight loss would be progressive and eventually, he would become too weak to carry on.  There was no cure.

With his future as a working dog over, and euthanasia a certainty in the months ahead, his owners were veering towards having him put to sleep, when we persuaded them to let us take him on, so that we could do our best to help him enjoy what was left of his life as a family pet.

It came as a complete surprise to us, that despite being highly trained in the field, he didn’t know how to play.  He would watch rubber balls bounce by, without the slightest interest.   Tug of war was a non-starter, with his much prized ‘soft mouth’.  Words of praise, pats on the head and cuddles, left him either nonplussed, or looking faintly embarrassed.  With perseverance however, he gradually came out of his shell, and became a much more out-going and affectionate dog, for the remainder of the time we had him.  He even discovered a passion for running free on the beach, and retrieving whatever he fancied.

I think of Gorse whenever I see dogs and cats with sadness in their eyes, for the want of praise, play, loving contact and positive interaction, and am reminded of the huge impact  these expressions of love, can have in transforming the lives of our pets.

In summary, there are many causes of depression in pets, and the signs can vary considerably from one individual to another.  Despite this, a holistic approach, which involves making changes to the diet, the environment and lifestyle, coupled with the judicious use of nutritional therapy products, homeopathy and other natural remedies where appropriate, often brings about a significant improvement in mental and emotional health, as well as physical well-being.

Vince The Vet

BVSc VetMFHom MRCVS

Nutritional Therapy For Pets

Homeopathy For Pets And People

 

 

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