Depression in the Animal Kingdom

Image from blende12, Pixabay.com​
Image from blende12, Pixabay.com

According to the World Health Organisation, depression is a common mental disorder affecting over 260 million people around the world. It is characterised by a persistent feeling of sadness, lack of pleasure in otherwise rewarding activities, often accompanied with lack of appetite, sleep and concentration and a constant feeling of tiredness. Depression is the result of an imbalance of hormones and chemicals in the brain often occurring during challenging times, but scientists have shown that it also has a genetic component in about 40-50% of the cases.

But, can animals also suffer from this condition? Every so often, animals look lethargic, with an appearance of sadness and lack of interest for activities that they otherwise would enjoy. Can this be the result of alterations on their mental state? If so, what is causing the animals to feel that way and how can help them improve?

By Ricardo Ribas

Whilst animals don’t have the same reasoning capacity as humans and don’t experience the same level of social and psychological complexities, scientists and behaviourists agree that animals can also feel stressed, sad and depressed.

What are the main reasons for depression in animals?

Many factors can trigger alterations in the animal’s mental state. Dogs and cats often develop anxiety and depression as a result of physical illnesses, fears or alterations in the animal’s environment, such as during fluctuations of the owner mood, new pet ownership, relocation to a new home, abandonment or confinement and whilst grieving after a loss of a close human or animal. Despite of being rare in the nature, wild animals can also develop suffer from these conditions, particularly throughout challenging times such changes in the environment, habitat or during death or loss of a close animal.

What are the symptoms in animals?

Researches have shown that mammals, and in particular primates, share anatomic, functional and chemical similarities with human brains, making them the most susceptible species to develop depression. However, since animals are unable to speak and transmit their feelings to humans, makes the diagnosis of these diseases very challenging. To better understand their mental state, scientists base their judgement on the animal’s mood and the changes in their normal behaviour. Primates are perhaps the most transparent of the species and the easiest to illustrate their feelings of sadness based on their facial expressions, but when this not possible, scientists and vets often look for other symptoms, such lethargy, lack of enthusiasm to pleasurable activities, loss of appetite, as well as changes in behaviour and in sleeping patterns. For instance, the majority of the dogs are comfortable when left alone at home for a few hours, whilst others develop obsessive behaviours such as constant barking and crying, repeatedly licking of parts of their body, biting furniture, defecating, urinating or showing changes in their normal behaviour such as aggressiveness, etc. Each animal has its different personality and is very important that the owners understand what is normal or not for each animal. It is also frequent to encounter signs of anxiety and depression in animals kept in captivity, often exhibiting repetitive and compulsory behaviours, such as the constant walking back and forward or in cycles.

Then how can we help the animals through these difficult times?

To start with, it is important to rule out that the changes in the animal’s behaviour are not the result of a simple underlying physical condition or disease. If the animal appears to be suffering from depression-like behaviour, there are a few things the owner can do. Here are some advices:

• Engage with the animal in fun activities, such as games, exercises, etc

• Increase the time spent with the animal and pay more attention to them

• Take your animal for longer walks and exercises

• Incentive the animal to play with other animals

• Limit the time the animal is left alone

• Take time to bond with them

Each animal has a different personality and is essential to understand the reason behind their sadness to better help them. If none of the advices work, consider taking the pet to a behaviourist or to the vet, which can ultimately prescribe antidepressant medications.

Depression can take time but often disappears with some changes in the animal day-to-day life. Nevertheless, it is crucial not to let the disease progress as it can deteriorate the animal’s health and be life threatening.

Large studies are lacking in this field and a lot of research is still necessary to better understand the way the animal feel and how to help them fight the disease. However, many studies agree that animals often help humans improve from depression and that owning a pet can be very beneficial to fight this condition. It is now in our hands to help them too!!

By Ricardo Ribas, veterinary doctor, doctorate in veterinary sciences and scientist in London.

Reference Sources

1. Flint J., Kendler K.S. The genetics of major depression. Neuron. 2014;81:484–503. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.01.027.

2. Krista Mifflinm. Dogs and Depression. The SprucePets. https://www.thesprucepets.com/do-dogs-get-depression-1112512. Updated 28.05.20. Accessed on August 2020.

3. Depression. World Health Organisation https://www.who.int/health-topics/depression#tab=tab_1

4. Sasha Ingber, Do animals get depressed? National Geographic News, National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121004-animals-depression-health-science/. Published 06.10.12. Accessed August 2020

5. Tibi Puiu. Can animals get depressed too? ZME Science. https://www.zmescience.com/ecology/animals-ecology/animal-depression/. Published 22.09.16. Accessed August 2020.

Disclaimer

The material, ideas and prevention measures discussed on this article are for informational purposes only. For more information consult a vet or a professional in the area. Whilst every effort is made to make sure the article is accurate at the time of publication, I take no liability for any new developments on the subject as well as any errors or omissions.

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