Is Prozac for your pooch just barking?If your pet has lost his va-va-voom, he may need a happy pill
During a life together stretching back nine years, Sandra Sommerfeld’s two pet dogs, Gertie, a basset hound, and Shadow, a terrier cross, had always got along. Their personalities, though, could hardly have been more different. Gertie was the placid, quiet one; Shadow was always on the move, chasing rabbits and ceaselessly teasing Gertie by stealing her ball. So when Gertie was put down in 2005 – she was suffering from an incurable tumour – Sommerfeld expected Shadow’s high spirits to dip for a short while and to return after a couple of weeks.
“For two weeks Shadow continued as usual,” says Sommerfeld. “But then she seemed to realise that Gertie wasn’t coming back. Her whole personality changed. She took no interest in her walks and went off her chews. She’d just sit on the sofa all day with her head down. Really, she looked depressed.”
To many of us, the idea that dogs can suffer mental health problems, such as depression, and chronic anxiety, will raise an eyebrow. But a recent study by Sainsbury’s Pet Insurance suggested that depression and anxiety are widespread in our canine population; the report indicated that 623,000 dogs and cats in the UK had suffered mentally in the previous year, while more than 900,000 suffered loss of appetite because of stress or emotional problems. Now, the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of the antidepression drug Prozac, has launched a chewable beef version of the medication in the US, under the name Reconcile, for anxious and depressed dogs. So are we really, as some pet experts fear, facing a rising tide of canine mental illness? And what should you do if you are living with an anxious pooch?
“Shadow had lost his joie de vivre”
Sommerfeld says she began to think about Shadow’s behaviour as manifestation of a depressive illness when it had still not improved three months after Gertie’s death, in December 2005. Hers is more than a casual opinion; she is a head nurse with the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a charity that provides free pet care to 4,650 animals every working day. “Shadow had lost her joie de vivre,” she recalls. “She even started soiling indoors.
Elaine Pendlebury, a senior veterinary surgeon for the PDSA, says Sommerfeld’s experience is far from unique. At the PDSA kennels she sees other cases of apparent dog depression. “Lethargy and a worrying lack of appetite are typical manifestations,” she says. “A dog owner faced with this should see a vet; there are physical problems, from infections to age-related diseases, that should be ruled out first.”
But what is at the root of all this doggy depression and anxiety? Are we, a self-avowed nation of dog-lovers, partly to blame? “Where depression is concerned,” says Pendlebury, “dogs are pack animals, and the trigger is often a change in the pack. So the death of an owner or companion dog, or divorce, leaving the dog with one partner, can spark depression, as can the arrival of a new child. Constant arguments at home could also be a trigger; dogs are sensitive to their emotional environment.
“There are a range of anxiety problems. Separation anxiety, for example, when a dog becomes distressed when left alone, is fairly common and can be caused by a simple lack of habituation or separation when a puppy. With more general anxiety disorders, you’d again look to the family as to what has changed, or perhaps to a chemical imbalance in the brain. The key is always to see your vet. There’s certainly a case for the idea that increased stress in our lives, longer working hours and noisier cities, is a contributor to dog depression. Pet dogs need human interaction; we’re perhaps spending less time with them than we once did.” But are we mistakenly viewing our dogs through the prism of human feeling when we talk of canine mental health, and not simply problematic behaviour? The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has expressed concern that dog anxiety and depression drugs such as Reconcile, licensed in the US, will create a population of “pill-popping pets”.
Daniel Mills, one of the world’s leading experts on animal behaviour, is professor of veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln. He states that two psychoactive drugs, Clomicalm and Selegeline, are already licensed for anxiety disorders in dogs in the UK. “Clomicalm works on serotonin in the brain and is most often used to treat separation anxiety,” Mills says. “But it could be useful for depression, too. If a dog came to me with separation anxiety or depressive symptoms, I’d first talk about behavioural therapy (see box). But evidence from anxiety cases shows that giving drugs speeds up the treatment recovery time.”
Pendlebury says that Clomicalm and Selegiline work broadly in the same way that our equivalent antidepressant drugs work on us. Clomicalm is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) like Prozac. Both drugs work by regulating the presence of serotonin in the brain; in both dogs and humans, serotonin plays a key role in mood.
But let’s cut to the chase: do dogs really have the emotional complexity necessary to suffer from mental illnesses? Intriguingly, Mills says that our understanding of the nature of emotion suggests that they do. “There’s been almost no scientific research on the range of emotions that mammals such as dogs can feel,” he says. “But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of depressed dogs; ask 20 owners and you’ll find a case. Scientists believe that emotional capability evolves in response to living in complex social situations. Dogs, like us, live in such societies, so it would make sense if they are capable of true depression. Anxiety problems are more widely reported, but that’s perhaps because they manifest themselves more obviously in behaviours such as chewing furniture and barking.”
“Suki was an anxious pup from day one”
A range of practitioners is seeking to raise awareness of canine mental health. Tracy Gudgeon read psychology at the University of Central Lancashire before deciding to work exclusively as a dog psychologist. In October 2005, Pam Southworth, a dog owner from Preston, contacted Gudgeon about her one-year-old Jack Russell, Suki. She was displaying aggression when Gudgeon went to leave the house, was refusing to drink any water except from the bath tap and was not responding to conventional training. “Suki seemed an anxious puppy from day one, but I thought that, as she was a puppy, she’d grow out of it,” Gudgeon says.
In fact, Gudgeon says, conventional training was aggravating an untreated anxiety disorder, combined with an obsessive compulsive disorder related to drinking. Southworth says that Gudgeon’s specially tailored behaviour therapy course, which included strategic ignoring when Suki became aggressive, together with an 18-month course of Clomicalm, have cured Suki’s anxiety and compulsions.
Medication, however, isn’t always the solution when a dog is anxious or depressed. In the case of Shadow, Sommerfeld’s dog, there was an altogether different answer. “In March 2005 we got an eight-year-old German Shepherd, Jake,” Sommerfeld says. “The change was immediate; from the moment Jake arrived, the carpet stayed dry. Now, Shadow’s back to her old self.”
If you think your dog is depressed or anxious, first consult your vet. However, you can find out more from the PDSA (www.pdsa.org.uk) and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (www.apbc.org.uk)
Paws for thoughtThe foundations of good canine mental health, says Inga MacKellar, of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC), lie in early life. The first 12 weeks of a dog’s life are crucial,” she says. “You must habituate your puppy to as wide a range of experiences as possible.
Separation anxiety is a common problem, so start leaving the room for short periods and build up gradually.
Noise phobia is another classic problem. Now, you can buy CDs that contain all the common noises that cause upset: fireworks, babies crying, traffic. Play one to your puppy regularly.
To socialise your puppy, introduce it to a wide a range of people: different sizes, different ethnic backgrounds, young children.
If you buy a dog that’s older than 12 weeks, ask what habituation and socialisation has been done.
If you think your adult dog is suffering anxiety or depression, seek help from a qualified behaviourist via the APBC. There are a few fundamental rules. Don’t reinforce problem behaviours by giving more attention, such as cuddling, patting. Instead, pick up a dog toy and start playing with it; this will send the message that there is nothing to worry about. Keep your dog adequately stimulated with walks and games. Ensure house rules are consistent; it’s stressful for a dog if it gets different messages on, say, whether it is allowed on the sofa. For more details, www.apbc.org.uk
Animal mad house
Elaine Pendlebury, the senior vet at the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, says that household pets can suffer a range of mental health problems . . .
Prone to anxiety problems, often linked to their territorial nature. A house move, or new cats in your area, could spark anxiety. Anxious cats might stop eating, overgroom, and spray indoors. Cat pheromones dispersers, such as those made by Feliway (feliway.co.uk), that act to calm your cat, can be effective.
Birds can suffer depression, anxiety and neuroses due to lack of stimulation. Feather plucking is a common sign, and compulsive head bobbing and refusal to eat. If you keep your bird in a cage, ensure daily exercise, and access to toys.
Prone to anxiety, relating to their status as prey. Look for refusal to eat and aggression. They also bond strongly, making them prone to depression if a companion rabbit dies. Rabbits are sociable and you should ideally keep more than one.
These animals are shortsighted and feel secure in small spaces. If your pet is in a large space, ensure that it has places to hide. A happy guinea-pig makes a low purring sound; a stressed one makes a high-pitched squeal.
Fish are susceptible to stress, often triggered by territorial disputes and lack of contact with other fish. A stressed fish may become lethargic, stop feeding and become paler in colour. Ensure that there are numerous hiding places.
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