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Pet owners share an unshakable bond with their animal companions and, more often than not, prioritize their health and wellbeing just as much as any other member of their household. After all, 97% of pet owners in the United States say their pets are part of their family.

However, in recent years, new information about how pets experience and process emotions has added a new dimension to pet care: monitoring of mental health and wellbeing. Just like us, our furry – and even not-so-furry – companions can experience their fair share of emotional ups and downs, resulting in anxiety or even depression.

Unfortunately, unlike us, our pets can't tell us exactly how they feel, which makes it difficult for pet owners actually to recognize symptoms of poor mental health in their pets. Despite how well we all think we know our dogs, cats, birds, and snakes, research confirms that many owners miss key signs and symptoms of mental distress or illness in their pets.

Findings from a study in the United Kingdom indicate that almost 75% of dogs in Britain exhibit signs of depression or anxiety, with 18% displaying symptoms on a weekly basis. Surprisingly, the study highlights that only 36% of owners are able to recognize these signals.

Let's dive into the differences between anxiety and depression in pets, how to spot them, and what you can do to help your pet live its best life.

Understanding Pet Emotions & Mental Health

Current research suggests that pets, like dogs and cats, do experience emotions, although the extent and nature of these emotions can vary among species and individuals. While it's challenging to fully understand the subjective experiences of animals, scientific research, observation, and anecdotal evidence from pet owners have provided valuable insights into their emotional lives.

Because early stages of research suggest that pets can experience emotions similar to our own, it's believed that their emotional wellbeing is closely tied to their mental health. The impact of emotions on a pet's mental health can be significant, influencing their behavior, overall wellbeing, and even physical health.

Depressed dog on floor.

Anxiety vs. Depression in Pets

First things first. Before we delve deeper into the signs of anxiety and depression in pets and what to look out for, it's important to make a clear distinction between anxiety and depression.

It's crucial to recognize that symptoms of anxiety or depression in pets may overlap, and a thorough veterinary examination is essential to rule out underlying medical issues that may share similar symptoms. If you suspect your pet is experiencing any degree of emotional distress, your best bet is to consult with a veterinarian or a professional animal behaviorist who can help determine the cause and work with you to develop an appropriate plan for support and intervention.

Anxiety in pets can stem from a number of different sources and can manifest in just as many ways, including during certain events, like car rides or vet visits, or even when separated from their owners. Pets that struggle with chronic anxiety may live in a persistent state of stress and heightened vigilance. Relaxation or unwinding can be especially challenging for these pets, as they are easily triggered and display adverse reactions to various stimuli, noises, people, or other animals. Their heightened sensitivity to triggers and stimuli in their environment can lead to a constant struggle with maintaining a sense of calm and security.

Depression, on the other hand, is characterized by a persistent and noticeable decline in mood and overall wellbeing. Several factors, such as illness, chronic pain, loss of an owner or companion, or a history of trauma, can contribute to depressive symptoms.

Understanding these key differences between anxiety and depression in pets can help you not only keep an eye out for signs and symptoms, but also better understand common triggers for each condition and monitor your pet accordingly.

5 Signs of Anxiety in Pets

1. Behavioral Changes

Perhaps one of the most telling signs of anxiety in pets is a distinct change in behavior, so be sure to keep a keen eye on any sudden alterations in your pet's behavior. If your once outgoing dog becomes timid or your typically aloof cat starts hiding more than usual, it could be a sign of anxiety.

However, it’s important to note that some pets may just have an off day every now and again! If you notice behavioral changes occurring repeatedly or often, then it’s time to take a closer look at the cause.

2. Excessive Grooming or Scratching

Dogs, cats, and even birds may resort to excessive grooming or scratching when stressed. If your pet is constantly licking or nibbling at their fur, it could indicate an underlying issue relating to anxiety, especially if you notice these grooming trends when stressful stimuli are present.

3. Destructive Behavior

Anxiety in pets can manifest as destructive behavior that may not be normal for your pet. If your furniture or other belongings are bearing the brunt of your pet's anxiety, it's time to investigate the root cause.

4. Changes in Appetite

Pay attention to changes in your pet's eating habits. Anxiety can lead to a loss of appetite or, conversely, overeating as a coping mechanism. If you notice your pet is begging for more food, leaving food in their bowl, or has noticeable weight gain or loss, there’s potential for anxiety to be involved.

5. Restlessness or Pacing

Like humans, pets can exhibit restless behavior when they’re anxious, too! If your pet seems more restless than usual, constantly pacing or unable to settle down, it might be a sign of anxiety that needs to be looked into by your vet.

Anxious cat.

5 Signs of Depression in Pets

1. Lethargy or Changes in Activity Level

Pets can experience lethargy and a noticeable decrease in activity when they're feeling down. If your once energetic pet becomes unusually sluggish, it's time for a closer look. This can manifest as your pet being less willing to engage in playtime or being slow or resistant on walks.

2. Social Withdrawal

One of the more noticeable signs of depression for pet owners is perhaps social withdrawal; after all, owners will definitely notice if their cat doesn't want to snuggle up on their lap for movie night or if their dog isn't sitting at their feet during dinner time. The bottom line is that if your pet is avoiding interaction, even with their favorite people or other pets, it may indicate a deeper emotional issue.

3. Changes in Sleeping or Waking Patterns

If you suspect mental distress in your pet, keep a close eye on their sleeping and waking patterns. Depressed pets may sleep more than usual or, conversely, struggle with insomnia.

Although sleep and wake changes can often be symptoms of other physical ailments, so be sure to speak with your vet about these changes before assuming they’re tied to depression.

4. Loss of Interest

Pets usually have their favorite toys or activities, and it can be especially telling when they’re no longer interested in their favorite things. If your pet suddenly loses interest in anything they typically enjoy, it could be a sign of depression.

5. Excessive Vocalization or Silence

Both an increase or decrease in vocalization can be indicative of emotional distress. More frequent howling, whimpering, meowing, or barking should be a cause for concern regardless of other mental health status, as these could be your pet’s way of telling you that something else is wrong or that they’re in pain or mentally distressed. On the flip side, if your normally chatty pet is eerily silent, that can also signal that something is amiss.

Listen to your pet's vocal cues — they might be trying to tell you something.

Lean on Your Vet in Times of Trouble

While it’s important for pet owners to be able to recognize signs of mental distress in pets, it’s even more important for owners to bring their concerns to their vet. Recognizing and addressing behavioral changes promptly and with the right professional help can help prevent long-term negative impacts on a pet’s mental health.

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