Signs of Mental Illness in Canines

Signs of Mental Illness in Canines

by Brook Bolen

Dog lovers know their four-legged family members are like them in more ways than one. An unexpected resemblance? Dogs can also struggle with mental illness, just like one in five Americans. Just like humans, dogs and other animals can develop and suffer from mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and more. While doctors and owners get better at determining what’s causing their dogs health problems all the time, mental health issues can be particularly hard to diagnose when it comes to pets. Yet many “typical” canine behaviors, such as tail chasing, tail wagging, licking/chewing, and more can signal mental health issues that could benefit from canine behavioral therapy.

According to Nicholas Dodman, veterinarian and author of Pets on the Couch, paying careful attention to your pet’s behaviors is paramount. “The thing with dogs is that they don’t talk to us, so it makes better sense to concentrate on their behaviors,” says Dodman. “There’s a condition called Canine Compulsive Disorder; it’s very common and it can take different forms. That’s why the most important thing for an owner is that they know their dog,” he continues. “Owners know when a particular behavior is normal or when it’s not. In the case of a dog who chases their tail—that can be a perfectly happy thing to do or it can be a compulsion, which is a problem. But the owner is usually the person to notice a behavior, they know their dogs routines, so if something becomes a problem, owners will generally see it and then reach out to a veterinarian for advice.”

While dogs can suffer from any number of ailments, the following behaviors can often be a cause for concern:

Compulsive Licking/Grooming

If your dog licks or grooms an area repeatedly, that can indicate a physical problem, like an injury. If your veterinarian has ruled out an injury or allergy, and your dog continues to lick/groom to the point that the area becomes raw and irritated, then this could be a physical manifestation of a mental problem, such as anxiety. It can also be a sign of boredom. “Go to the vet and make sure it’s not a medical issue,” Dodman says. “If the vet says, ‘I can find nothing,’ then it is probably time to see a canine behaviorist to determine the cause and the best way to treat it.”

Excessive Sleeping

While it’s normal for dogs to sleep more as they age, it can be a cause for concern if the dog is younger, like a puppy, or if the dog’s sleep habits change dramatically in a short amount of time. Some conditions, such as diabetes, can also cause lethargy and increased sleeping, but it can also be a sign of depression. Particularly if a dog has experienced grief from loss of a human or animal companion, sleeping more than usual is often a sign of depression.

Loss of Appetite/Interest in Food

Feeding guidelines are there to help parents with an idea of how much food they should offer their dogs. Some dogs naturally eat less than others—after all, they’re individuals, just like us. An extreme drop in appetite, though is worrisome, and can indicate your dog is struggling with depression or anxiety.

Repetitive Behaviors

Researchers, including Dodman, have studied repetitive behaviors. While there is not yet a consensus on these actions, Dodman believes that some repetitive behaviors are not compulsions, but symptoms of canine autism. Dodman notes the behavioral parallels between autistic children and dogs who engage in repetitive behaviors: these behaviors are atypical and frequently impair social interactions. The same is true for dogs. Similarly, because the National Institutes of Mental Health classifies autism as a mental health condition, the same applies to dogs. Dog parents concerned that their dog may have autism should see a veterinarian.

Acts Strange

We all know our dogs sometimes act in strange, seemingly inexplicable, and often humorous ways. Yet if your dog is experiencing an increase in strange behaviors, ask yourself if your dog has been through a tough time lately: has there been a big move, a death in the family, or something else that could seriously alter their daily lives? If so, this could be a sign that your dog is stressed, depressed, or anxious.

Excessive Tail Chasing

Many dogs, often puppies, can lose themselves in a game of chasing their own tail. Yet when dogs do it continuously—especially to the point that they choose that behavior over other pleasurable ones (like eating or going for a walk or a car ride), it can signal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Dog who are anxious, bored, or otherwise stressed often exhibit these behaviors. However, Dodman notes it’s important to remember that compulsive disorders can also be a part of your dog’s genetic makeup. “Certain breeds are predisposed to certain behaviors,” cautions Dodman. “Border collies like to chase lights because of their natural seek and search behavior. Belgian Malinois are genetically susceptible to OCD. Dobermans engage in ‘flank sucking.’ He notes that dogs like this need a “natural outlet for a natural behavior.”

Staring into Space

According to Lori Nanan, CTC, CPDT-KA and graduate of The Academy for Dog Trainers, it’s not uncommon for older dogs, like older people, to become more forgetful and less mentally agile. Similar to dementia in humans, dogs can suffer from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, and staring into space is often a symptom. “For dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction, it’s like they’re lost in space. They just sit and stare into a corner until you move them along. They sort of forget who their friends are. They can act withdrawn or irritable.” For dogs as for people, dementia can alter behaviors and decrease quality of life. Fortunately, though, treatment options exist for both that can minimize symptoms and increase their quality of life.

While diagnosing canine mental illness can be a challenge, there are certain signs and symptoms that could indicate the presence of a mental illness. Likewise, experts are learning more about the diverse ways mental illnesses can manifest in dogs. Fortunately, dog lovers and veterinary professionals are learning more and more about this largely under-explored aspect of canine health, and in the process, enabling owners to provide better care for their beloved fur babies.