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Published: May 27, 2022 12 min read
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Pet enthusiasts have long touted the health benefits of owning a pet, from lower blood pressure to increased oxytocin levels — the so-called “feel-good hormone.” But did you know pets also struggle with depression, anxiety and many of the other mental issues as we humans? If left unchecked, these conditions can lead to behavioral issues like aggression or destructive chewing, and chip away at your pet’s quality — and length — of life.

Read on to learn more about your pet’s mental health and what you can do to get your beloved companion the help he or she needs.

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Mental health in pets

A companion animal struggling with a mental illness may stop eating, behave violently or develop severe anxiety and depression. Luckily, there are treatment options for everything from mild anxiety to compulsive disorders.

Some of our picks for best pet insurance companies may cover treatment, though the options are limited compared to traditional veterinary care. The companies that cover behavioral issues, for instance, might reimburse you for prescription medications, but not training or therapy unless it’s prescribed and provided by a licensed veterinarian. Take note of what pet insurance covers before you book an appointment so there aren’t any surprises.

Common mental health conditions in pets

These are the most common mental disorders in companion animals:

Anxiety

Pets with chronic anxiety live in a constant state of stress and hypervigilance. Often, the pet cannot relax, is easily triggered and reacts adversely to stimuli, noises, people, animals or being left alone. Treatment for anxiety includes medication, natural supplements and behavior modification. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that pressure wraps like the Thundershirt ease anxiety.

Dog separation anxiety

There’s been a recent uptick in reported separation anxiety as pandemic restrictions are being eased and more people are returning to work. Signs of distress include pacing, escape attempts, destructive chewing or soiling the house, even when the pet’s housetrained. Research suggests there’s a genetic component as well.

Cat separation anxiety

A cat’s cool demeanor can be confused with indifference, but cats also suffer from separation anxiety. Excessive meowing and crying, failure to use the litter box, escape attempts, destructive behavior and an unusually high level of excitement when you return home can mean your cat had a hard time in your absence.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Your pet may suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) if it repeats extreme behaviors at the expense of routine habits like eating or engaging with you. Some dog breeds — Dobermans, English bull terriers, Great Danes and Border collies — are predisposed to canine compulsive disorder.

Signs of canine compulsion may include incessant licking, tail chasing, spinning, pacing, chasing shadows and biting at invisible items in the air. The compulsion can be so overwhelming that your pet can’t stop even if they’re hurting themselves.

A cat’s obsessive behavior is similar to a dog's — sucking and chewing on fabric, hunting and pouncing at invisible prey, foot chewing, overgrooming and incessant vocalization. One possible trigger of compulsive behavior in cats is a rare condition known as feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS), where your kitten experiences extreme skin sensitivity that triggers aggression and even self-harm.

Dementia

Pet dementia impacts memory, learning and comprehension in aging pets.

Dementia is most common in dogs (canine cognitive dysfunction or CCD) and cats (feline senile dementia or FSD). Signs include disorientation, aimlessness, staring at nothing, forgetting learned commands and failing to recognize familiar faces.

Like some other mental conditions, there is not a specific diagnostic test, so your vet will probably test your pet for other possible illnesses and diagnose dementia by process of elimination.

Sadly, there’s no cure for dementia, but symptoms are treatable. Frequent play, prescription medication, supplements and special diet food can slow the progression up to a certain point. After that, the best treatment is patience, comfort and extra care. A cozy bed, a night light (to help him or her move in the dark) and placing pads or litter boxes around the home can help give your pet the best end-of-life care.

Depression

A depressed pet eats less, plays less and seems unusually withdrawn and lethargic. Most bouts of depression are caused by environmental factors. Your dog or cat could be grieving the loss of a pet friend or family member or struggling to adjust to a new house and schedule. Pets can also get depressed if they’re in pain and discomfort, so it’s important to take them in for regular checkups.

Certain dog breeds can also get depressed if their needs aren’t met. Intelligent breeds like border collies and German shepherds are known to get the blues if they’re under-stimulated, and basset hounds won’t cope well without constant attention.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in pets is a cluster of symptoms arising from trauma, neglect or abuse. Dogs can show signs of chronic anxiety, hypervigilance, aggression, sensitivity to noises and difficulty sleeping. Cats may be aggressive, fearful and avoid human interaction except to eat. They may also hide or try to escape frequently.

The best way to manage PTSD in pets is with medication and behavioral therapy. Vets often use sedative drugs like Xanax, Valium and Zoloft. Often, severe PTSD — as seen in retired military service dogs and K9s — isn't easily cured, and the best solution is to place them in a calm and trigger-free home.

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How to know if your pet has a mental illness?

It’s no wonder some owners wish their pets could talk. Lucy won’t be barking complete sentences any time soon, but we can understand her mental state by watching her body language and behavior.

Learn their body language

To learn dog body language and cat body language, pay attention to the tail position and movement, posture, facial expressions and ears. Note that the same movements may mean completely different things. For example, a dog’s wagging tail is almost always an inviting sign, but a cat doing the same thing is most likely annoyed and needs space.

Identify atypical behaviors

Unusual behaviors are the first sign that something’s wrong. Take note of the frequency and intensity of these behaviors and pay attention to what triggers them.

Distressed dog behavior

A dog that’s suffering may:

  • Engage in obsessive behaviors like tail chasing or constant licking
  • Be aggressive towards people, children and other animals
  • Appear withdrawn and lethargic
  • Show lack of appetite
  • Pant, drool and yawn at times that don’t warrant it
  • Go to the bathroom in the wrong places, even if house trained

Distressed cat behavior

A cat that’s struggling mentally may:

  • Withdraw and hide more than normal
  • Change its eating habits
  • Be reluctant to use the litter box
  • Chew fabric and scratch furniture
  • Attempt to escape
  • Experience nausea, vomiting, trembling and diarrhea

In the case of newly adopted pets, we recommend talking to someone from the shelter or foster home to know what’s normal behavior and what’s not (maybe Milo’s just a really lazy puppy).

Visit your vet

Take your pet to the vet for a checkup if you notice a change in behavior. Your vet should conduct a complete wellness check — including a physical checkup and fecal and blood tests — to rule out any illnesses or injuries that could cause your pet’s unusual behavior.

How to manage mental health conditions in pets

Pet mental health issues are manageable and treatable. Your pet may benefit from a change of environment, medication or behavioral therapy, but the choice of treatment depends on the severity of the condition.

With some mental health problems — dementia or severe anxiety, for example — aim for getting the issue managed rather than cured. With professional guidance, you’ll know what’s troubling your companion and the right course of action to get their health back on track.

At home, there are several steps you can take:

  • Identify your pet’s triggers — Children, other pets, people, new surroundings and loud noises are common stressors.
  • Adjust your pet’s environment — Reduce your pet’s exposure to triggering situations. This could mean skipping dog parks, hikes and limiting contact with strangers. Just like humans have a hard time nurturing our mental health under stress, trying to tackle our pet’s mental problems while they’re in a reactive state is a recipe for disaster.
  • Avoid reinforcing negative behaviors — Pet owners often shout or try to console their pet if the animal is alert or distressed, but this can reinforce the behavior you want to fix. It’s best to react positively or neutrally, focus on redirecting your pet’s attention and remove them from the triggering situation altogether.
  • Establish a routine — Routines can alleviate anxiety and give pets a sense of security and safety. Schedule daily playtime and physical activity, regular feedings, bathroom breaks and practice gradual exposure to changes.

When at-home management is not enough, we recommend you consult a veterinary behaviorist, a professional certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) to tackle serious behavioral problems in pets. They can develop holistic treatment plans that integrate medicine, therapy and behavioral modification.

You can use the ACVB’s search tool to find certified behaviorists in your area. If there aren’t any, feel free to seek out other pet therapists and trainers, but be sure to ask about their methods and training. The ACVB’s guide on how to hire a trainer can help you pick the best professionals.

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Pet's mental health FAQ

Can a pet have a mental illness?

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Yes, a pet can have a mental illness. The most common mental health issues in pets are anxiety, depression and compulsive behaviors. Some breeds of cats and dogs are predisposed to anxiety and compulsion, but any pet can develop behavioral issues if not properly cared for.

How do I improve my pet's mental health?

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It's best to implement a routine with the right amount of exercise, playtime, stimuli and companionship, as well as proper nutrition and vet care. Research what your individual pet needs — routines will look different depending on your pet's personality and breed.

How to help a dog with separation anxiety?

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First, see how much separation your dog can tolerate. Practice leaving the room and returning, rewarding them for staying calm and gradually increasing the amount of time you spend out of the house.

Puzzle toys and Kongs filled with kibble will help to keep them busy and create positive associations with being left alone. Giving them an old t-shirt or sock may also ease their anxiety, as your smell is a source of comfort.

Pet mental health key takeaways

  • Our pets can suffer from mental health issues like anxiety, depression and compulsive behaviors.
  • Mental health problems manifest as behavioral issues like aggression, barking and self-harm.
  • Some pets are genetically predisposed to anxiety and compulsive disorders, but others develop them due to environmental stressors.
  • Before diagnosing a mental disorder, a complete physical checkup is necessary to rule out any underlying illnesses or injuries.
  • Pet mental health is best managed with a holistic approach that includes medication, behavioral therapy and changes to your pet’s routine and environment.