Dogs have been bred to be companion pets for thousands of years. So when they are faced with the loss of a human or animal they have become attached to, it should be no surprise that their emotions will turn to sadness.
“As a general rule, depression is not something we have a label for, that we recognize in pets,” says Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM, ACVB, founder of Behavior Solutions for Pets. “But even though it hasn’t been studied or documented doesn’t mean we aren’t aware that there are situations that cause a pet to be subdued, contained or worried.”
Just like humans, pets feel the loss of a loved one and need time to adjust without them. Typical signs that the loss is wearing on them mirror symptoms of humans experiencing depression: they don’t want to engage in activities they usually want to engage in; they isolate themselves; they won’t play; they won’t eat or are reluctant to eat—“they don’t have that spark to them you would generally expect to see,” explains Sinn.
Unlike humans, though, depression in pets isn’t treated with medication. In fact, pets usually start to return to normal within two weeks of disruption. And Sinn says, if the issue proceeds longer the pet should be looked at in case there are other medical issues at play.
To help a pet cope, Sinn suggests you don’t force your pet to do anything, just as you wouldn’t force things on a human who just went through a major loss. Instead, she says you should engage the pet if possible: take them for a walk to change the scenery, buy a new toy, find time to snuggle with them, “something that helps them connect and help them feel a little more at ease,” she says. And if there is a loss of appetite, she says there is nothing wrong with giving them something extra, such as a warmed-up meal or tuna with their food to entice them to eat.
Many of us liken our pet’s emotions to our own, but the scenarios that may cause us internal sadness or to project our emotions on an animal—like a move or a new baby or pet—do not compare to a pet’s emotions.
“Certainly their lives can be disrupted when there is a huge change in the environment, but I would say, especially in dogs, that it is their social connections that make them the most vulnerable,” says Sinn. So, if you bring a new baby or new pet into the home and your pet starts to hide under beds or in other rooms, Sinn says they are most likely scared. “I see situations where, for example, the dog is fearful of the baby and is reluctant to approach, won’t move around, or is hiding because the dog is scared of this new thing in the house, as opposed to being depressed, bitter or resentful.”
And for a move to a new home, she says potential emotional reactions from the pet will come in the form of separation anxiety.
Another notion to keep in mind is that an older pet may experience sadness after a loss more so than a younger pet due to a neurological, cognitive decline. “Once they hit 8 to 10 years of age, about 30-40 percent show signs of cognitive decline,” says Sinn. “It makes them befuddled, confused, less behaviorally flexible. So any major life change with a pet that is already suffering from a neurological impairment like that, it is twice as hard for them.”