Can dogs get depression? Or, more accurately, they can become depressed and that can linger for many days? I believe they can.
I would have been most sceptical of the notion of depression in dogs had I not experienced it first hand and on more than one occasion and in more than one breed.
My scepticism stems from the fact that all too often we humans impose human traits (and biology) onto the poor old canine. We dress them in this and that clothing, equate their pregnancy to human pregnancy, trust them with human babies because ‘our dog would never bite’ and so forth. I even had someone once say to me, ‘The dachshund has no roadsense.’ This comment came as a chaser to her revelation ‘Both our dachshunds were run over by cars.’ I can picture it now, some 30 years ago when on holidays in Nimbin with our two dachshund Gina and Albert. I stood gobsmacked in the antique shop, wherein she had approached us after spotting our two standard dachshunds tied up out the front.
‘No roadsense? Is she crackers?’ I thought. They’re a dog, for goodness sakes, and their eye-height in about 15cm from the bitumen. I’d like to see how a person would have negotiated the same traffic with their face at ankle height. Of course this is ridiculous and as I have travelled the past three decades since I have given a name to such remarks coming, as they do, dressed in many different genres. And that name is: ‘convenient truths’. Those little lies we tell ourselves that we might distance ourselves from blame and guilt which are – after all – two most inconvenient emotions.
Anyway, I have digressed.
Dog depression is perhaps best described by a couple of examples I have experienced in my doggy career; case studies I suppose we can call them.
The first involves our dog Jacqui the Jack Russell. Anyone who knows the Jack Russell will know they are a keen, dominant little dog that will spring to attention at the mere thought of a rabbit. Anticipation of sighting a rabbit for our Jacqui was enough to push her to near ecstasy, scratching and scrabbling into the car and her preferred lookout atop the centre console. There she would sit and twitch between us, primed for spotting a rabbit that might appear at any moment.
As country dwellers, Jacqui would have many occasions to chase rabbits at our home. Our Mini Dachshund Poppy would love to do this too, but Pop was a little tubby and had nowhere near the speed, agility and bloody-minded determination Jacqui possessed. Wilbur, the Chihuahua and our third canine faimly member, preferred to leave them to it, displaying no inclination to face-off with a fury animal about his own size.
All this rabbit chasing would provide many hours of entertainment for the dogs. I suppose I would have found this distressing, in so much as the untimely demise of any creature upsets me, had it not been for the fact that neither pack-leader Jack Russell nor underling Dachshund ever caught a rabbit. Oh yes, a speedy pursuit would ensue in the order of rabbit-Jacqui-and-Poppy-miles-back, but never a rabbit was taken.
Interestingly, top dog Jacqui never seemed put out by her failure to snare her quarry. And for Poppy’s part, she would be exhausted and glad when the whole affair was over.
Virus arrives – tables turn
Tables turned in the rabbit-chasing stakes in about 2003. Calicivirus had been released and rabbits all over our housing estate at Longford where we lived were running about blinded and in slow-mo. Poor creatures.
As you can imagine, this upped the anti. Rabbits were everywhere and it was not too long before the inevitable happened: Jacqui, the rabbit fanatic of many a year, chased and caught up to a rabbit!
Now, what happened next was most extraordinary. I had imagined her reaching the pinnacle of doggy joy, despatching that suffering little bunny with a whip of its neck. She would – I had imagined – do this in classic dog fashion, absent of the sadistic torment cats are wont to inflict on their prey.
But not so. No sir-ee. As mouth made contact with bunny for the first time, it was as if a pause button was hit. Instead of a speedy follow through despatch, she instead spat bunny out without so much as damaging a hair. She then proceeded to gag a bit as if trying to get any bunny fur out of her mouth.
Such an anticlimax for Jacqui would in itself possibly have been sufficient to trigger a mild depressive episode, but what really cemented this was what followed. Namely, a second or two later Poppy arrived on the scene, snatched up the escaped rabbit and did the doggy deed. A nonplussed Jacqui looked on a proud Poppy trotted off with her felled quarry.
Depression sets in
This whole episode was witnessed by myself, my husband and our neighbour from where we were sitting outside on a beautiful summer’s day. We found the whole thing highly amusing and there was much applauding and praise for Poppy. I admit too that I was pleased to see one less suffering rabbit, so many of the virus ridden things being destined for much worse ends.
Over the next few days I began to notice changes in Jacqui. The ever-keen dog had lost her keeness. She wouldn’t even get out of her bed in the mornings. She just lay there. She was not sick. She was just lack lustre and sad. This went on for a good couple of weeks and the conclusion we reached at the time was that she was depressed. After all, a hugely humiliating episode had taken place: top dog not only spitting out the rabbit, but being upstaged by her canine-lesser Poppy flying in from the wings.
Having witnessed this depressive episode in Jacqui a decade ago, I have been in tune to it over the years. In fact many owners share with me the depression of their pet dog when a mate dies. This is a big motivator for some people to seek a new companion to ease the misery for their grieving pet.
I look out for it in the doggery. Yes, we have large runs, lots of entertainment, a marrow bone once a week, human company most of the time, yet despite these pleasant surrounds I sometimes spot a dog who is a little down. It’s their body language. Of course I check for signs of ill health, such as a temperature, but when I see they are fine I realise it’s their mood that’s low.
It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s one reason why on most days I have a couple of the dogs around my feet here at my desk in the doggery, why David and I take several dogs outside into the big secure paddock behind the doggery most days for unlimited freedom runs and puddling at the dam, and why also most days I’ll fetch one or two dogs back to the house to lie in the sun at our back door, or poke about the place.
On the whole I can say my dogs are all very happy pooches and I remain very sensitive to their body language so I can tell if something is amiss.
Perhaps others can comment if they have had a similar experience with a depressed pooch and how they remedied it.