18 Oct Mental disorders in pets and how to care for them
Did you know that our much-loved pets can suffer from mental disorders like anxiety, depression or even obsessive-compulsive behaviour? In this article, we uncover the types of mental issues that exist in pets and how we, as pet parents, can help improve their quality of life.
Baxta’s resident vet, Dr. Simone Maher, says, “It wasn’t that long ago, 100 years ago or so, that there was a perception that animals didn’t recognise pain or didn’t feel pain.” Today, we not only recognise that animals feel real pain, but science has also revealed that mental illnesses in pets do exist.
So if you suspect that you’ve got a neurotic cat, or think your hamster is a binge eater, or perhaps have an over-excited bird, you may not be wrong. In 2019, studies even reported that approximately 40% of Australian dogs suffer from anxiety and a whopping 70% of Australians don’t walk their dog daily. Sadly, as our best friends can’t talk, we simply must take a closer look at how they are feeling or communicating to pick up any undesirable or destructive behaviours.
Two main causes of mental health disorders in animals
It’s often mistakenly thought that a naughty pet lacks proper training and therefore is ‘acting out’. While these unappealing behaviours can be caused by boredom or unfulfilled needs, the fact is, genetics also play a part. Your vet or an animal behaviourist can help shed some light on this.
Once they have uncovered the cause, they can help you create a plan of action or prescribe a treatment or medication to help improve their mental wellbeing. Just be aware that while effective, medication should be your last resort as your pet’s mental health is more often than not caused by external factors.
Here are the differences between mental wellbeing caused by genetics versus external influences.
Some animals are genetically predisposed to mental illness for many reasons, including breeding, age, and breed characteristics. So before you bring home a pet or when choosing one, do learn whether their family has had previous mental health issues.
If you’re adopting a pet from a rescue organisation, a staff member will often provide you with some background knowledge of the dog’s personality and its coping mechanisms. For new puppies, breeders should be able to reveal family or medical history. So do your research. The information you gather can help create the perfect prevention or treatment plan for your pet’s mental health.
Believe it or not, the most common cause of a pet’s mental illness is the big wide world! It’s no wonder. If the world can be scary for most humans, think about how it can be terrifying for pets. Improper care or neglect can also lead to mental health issues for pets.
So what are the triggers of mental health issues in pets? It can range from a traumatic experience, inadequate mental stimulation, or even improper socialisation.
A trigger refers to something that alters the pet’s emotional state, which can worsen or stimulate a mental illness. For instance, a pet may associate a vet visit, owner leaving home, or an incident at the dog park with negative emotions.
6 types of mental disorders in pets
1. OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder)
OCD is defined as excessive thoughts that cause repetitive behaviour. In dogs, this can be very damaging to their physical health as they can excessively chase their tail, bite, lick, and pace, which can cause wounds that never completely heal, leading to other complications.
2. Excessive fears and phobias
Improper socialisation, over-stimulation, or previous abuse are some of the triggers. Let’s say a dog receives an overwhelming amount of attention from kids as a puppy; it can develop a phobia of children. Textures can also cause phobias – if a dog isn’t used to or introduced to different textures, they can create a phobia to walk on certain surfaces.
This prevalent issue amongst dogs is usually manifested in simple body language such as excessive licking, yawning, pacing, or whining. Anxiety management in dogs aims to stabilise their lives – to maintain a routine, get sufficient sleep, avoid triggers, and create an environment they feel safe in can help manage their anxiety.
4. Separation anxiety
Most common in dogs and is mainly caused by a codependent relationship with their owner. It happens when the pet cannot cope for a certain length of time without its owner. Separation anxiety often manifests in destructive behaviours such as chewing furniture, stress urination, biting, and howling.
Environmental changes such as the loss of an owner, living in a shelter environment, physical illness, or losing a fur sibling are often the causes. Symptoms can include refusal to eat, drink or exercise, leading to a quick decline in the pet’s health.
6. PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder)
Unfortunately, PTSD is all too common, especially in rescue dogs. Abuse, neglect, or being taken away from their birth mother, physical injuries, and other trauma are some of the causes. Symptoms of PTSD are widely spread and can often increase a dog’s anxiety.
Taking preventative measures to help your pet
Boredom is a significant contributor to the decline of a pet’s mental health. So it’s a good idea to be proactive in addressing even the slightest changes in your pet’s behaviour to help prevent further issues.
Caring for your pet isn’t just about the extra treats or taking care of their diet. The key is to create a balance between keeping your pet physically and mentally stimulated. Here are some ways you can start:
‘Decompression period’ refers to a settlement period when bringing a new dog home. ‘General decompression’ is the importance of ensuring your dog gets its downtime.
You can start by introducing a decompression period to allow the dog time to adjust to new things or any changes in the home – sounds, people, other pets, the space. This adjustment period is significant as dogs, just like us humans, cannot effectively learn when they are stressed or unable to focus.
The decompression time needed may be significantly less with a new puppy as their breeder and mum would have encouraged the pup to socialise. With a rescue or older dog, the decompression period can be roughly 4-6 weeks before they’re comfortable and have reduced stress levels.
Our top tips are:
Maintain a regular routine
Feed, toilet train, play, exercise, and enjoy downtime with your dog at the same time each day.
Limit visitors to the home, don’t go on long adventurous walks or introduce new things
Lots of positive reinforcement helps!
In addition to the initial adjustment period, you will need to allow your dog time for general decompression on a day-to-day basis. Once your dog begins to decompress, their real personality will shine through, which is the first step to a tail wagging best friend!
What you can do:
Give your dog calm and fulfilling activities to complete throughout the day
Create a safe space for your dog to unwind
Allow your dog time to wind down after a stressful event (e.g. vet visit, training session, puppy play date)
Socialising & desensitisation
Introducing your pet to socialising at a young age is the best thing you can do for them! Whether meeting new friends, regular visits to the vet, or going on their first roadside walk, living a low-stress life is excellent for their mental wellbeing.
So think of your dog as a baby or a young child. Would you let a stranger pick them up or allow another kid to yell in their face? We aim to avoid reactivity by introducing socialisation because dogs can overreact to aspects of their environment when they feel unsafe.
Here’s how you can help:
Take it slow and easy when getting out and about.
Ensure the person or dog on the opposite side of the interaction is safe and responsible.
Assume everything is scary to your young pup – new people, the loud, boisterous neighbourhood dog, car trips, even the vacuum cleaner.
If your pet isn’t worried about specific interactions or tasks, move on quickly and focus on other areas of need.
Any experience that overwhelms your pet can cause them to lash out and bite or create a negative association which can impact their future reactions. So for you and your pooch to live a happy, stress-free life, introduce socialising early!
Ways to improve my pet’s existing conditions
There is a spectrum of symptoms and stages of a mentally ill pet, and our vet can help you identify them. Three common ways that help improve mental health issues in pets include enrichment, mental stimulation, and training. Incorporating each of them into your pet’s routine can help them.
Enrichment toys, games and activities
Designed to increase physical and mental stimulation, enrichment activities include satisfying a pet’s natural urges such as digging or sniffing. When planning enrichment activities, consider your pet’s breed and nature to best target their needs. Enrichment comes in many forms and can be a great way to avoid or lessen separation anxiety.
Simple enrichment ideas include stuffed kongs, lick mats, food puzzles, toys, and search games. Once your dog gets the hang of it, you can amp up the difficulty and add in sniffing games, training tricks, and more challenging puzzles.
A dog could run and exercise all day long but still struggle with mental illness due to boredom. Each day, giving them a sense of purpose or fulfilment is essential, particularly for working breed dogs such as Kelpies, Cattle Dogs, and German Shepherds.
Mental stimulation requires you to give your dog a constructive or safe alternative to fulfil their desires. For example, some dogs are constant diggers or chewers and need to engage in these activities to stimulate themselves mentally. Instead of changing their behaviour, provide a safe opportunity to fulfil their need like a long-lasting chew or a digging enrichment task.
Training brings many positive benefits. It’s also a great way to keep pups stimulated and entertained. There are endless tricks and commands you can teach your dog that goes beyond the standard sit, stay, and come.
Combining both physical and mental stimulation will allow your dog to feel accomplishment, benefiting their health. For example, teaching your dog to sniff out a specific toy or object and successfully find it can boost confidence.
Like to learn more? To uncover the importance of training for dogs at all life stages, read our blog.