Do Pets Get Depressed? Exploring Animal Emotions
There has never been a time in my life when I didn’t have a pet. I can still remember my first cat when I was three or four years old. It was a striped Tabby named “Tiger.” I have had cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, and even hermit crabs. As I write this I have one of my companion animals right here snuggled up to me, one of my tuxedo cats. My pets have brought me such joy over the years and their unconditional love and companionship has helped me get through many life challenges including bouts of severe depression. When we talk about depression we usually mean a mood disorder affecting humans. But is it possible for animals and especially our pets to feel depressed as well? This is not an easy question to answer because our pets cannot speak to tell us what they are feeling. Yet some animal experts say yes, it is possible for some animals to experience depression and anxiety.
In this post we will explore the realm of animal emotion and how to recognize the possible signs and symptoms of depression in our pets.
My first experience with a depressed pet was when one of my cats died and our other cat went through something I would label as grief. We have always had two cats at a time. We had a situation where we had two cats that were about the same age and one died. So we got a younger cat (one-year-old) as a companion for our surviving older cat (she was over ten years old at the time). It was a good match and our younger kitty (Little One) really latched onto our older cat (Isabella), treating her as somewhat of a mentor in all cat things. Little One would follow Isabella everywhere and would even snuggle with her to sleep. When Isabella died in our home, Little One was just not the same. She didn’t want to play. She slept more than usual. And our once spry “little” kitty put on a lot of weight in a short time. I thought to myself that these are some of the same symptoms people show when depressed. Some people might say that I am simply projecting my own feelings onto my pet but there was a distinct change in my cat’s behavior after the death of our older cat. This went on for some months until we got a new companion cat for Little One.
Within the animal world we have seen examples of what many consider to be wild creatures displaying signs of emotion. In a recent story published in The Telegraph, a mother gorilla displays symptoms of what we recognize to be grief following the death of her infant. Take a look at this video on Animal Planet showing chimpanzees after a death of an infant. Tell me that the expression and body posture of one of the adult chimpanzee doesn’t look like grief. Elephants have also been shown to perform a ceremonious grief ritual upon the discovery of a death in their herd. And who can forget the image of Hawkeye, a Labrador retriever, who refused to leave the casket of his owner, Navy Seal Jon Tumilson, who died in Afghanistan.
While some people such as Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, believe that animals can and do display emotion, others claim that we humans are simply projecting our human qualities onto our pets and animals. The psychological term for this is called anthropomorphism (the humanizing of animals). Lee Charles Kelley, who wrote a post for Psychology Today on this topic, believes that some types of anthropomorphizing animals, particularly pets, can cause them to suffer. I agree with this author’s conjecture that it may be dangerous when people start labeling their pets with human motivations such as being stubborn, willful, and disobedient. Many pet owners, who do not understand animal behavior, place a human template on their pet which can result in animal cruelty. Your cat or dog really doesn’t have “it in for you” nor are they deliberately trying to stress you out with bad behavior. Likewise our pets are animals and cannot be a substitute for a human baby. There have been some cases where someone might adopt a monkey as a pet and dress them up in baby clothes. Some people adopt wild animals as pets and humanize them, and then are very suprised when their "baby" exhibits behavior which is simply natural to them but possibily dangerous to humans. The horrific story of the pet chimpanzee who ripped off a woman's face comes to mind.
While I do believe that animals have emotion I also think they are guided by instinct and motivations which may be very different from humans. As responsible pet owners, we have to separate our own feelings from those of our pets.
Which brings us back to our original question: Can pets get depressed?
Many animal experts say that pets can show signs of depression and particularly grief. Others say that symptoms such as a drastic change in weight, lethargy, or other changes to your pet’s general demeanor may indicate some underlying medical illness. The following are some check lists for possible signs of pet depression in cats and dogs. Regardless of what label you use to describe these behaviors, when you see changes in your pet’s overall personality and activity level it is probably time to get them checked out by a veterinarian.
According to a website called the Cat Channel some of the signs of feline depression can include:
• A change in normal activity
• A change in vocalization
• A decrease in appetite
• A lack of energy
• A decrease in general grooming behaviors
The reasons stated for feline depression can include the death of a companion cat or other pet, a move, the owner’s schedule change, or a loss in the family.
A website called Dogtime cites similar reasons for depression in dogs as for cats. A change in daily routine, a move, a death in the family, a loss of a companion pet, a grown child leaving for college, or even the weather may affect your dog’s demeanor.
Here are some of the possible symptoms of depression in canines.
• Change in weight or decreased appetite
• Sleeping too much or lethargy
• Clinginess and whining
• An overall change in your dog’s personality
The best suggestion given in the literature when you notice any of these symptoms is to take your pet to the vet especially if these changes have lasted for a couple of weeks or more. What we may think is depression might actually be the onset of illness. The one thing I have noticed with my pets over the years is that animals thrive on routine and dependability. Sticking to some sort of routine despite changes in your pet’s environment may help to ease stress and alleviate depression-like symptoms. Some pets depend just as much on you for companionship as you do upon them. Make sure to carve out some good quality time with your pet for play and affection. This reciprocal give and take with your pet will not only help their well-being but yours as well. There is plenty of evidence in the literature to show that spending time with your pet can improve your mood.
We would like to hear your thoughts. Do you believe that animals can feel emotion? Do you think it is possible for pets such as cats and dogs to experience depression? Have you ever had a pet who you thought was depressed or anxious? Let us hear your stories. We are eager to hear from you!
For more information exploring our connection with our pets and how a companion animal may improve your physical and mental health please refer to the following Health Central articles and resources: