Three-quarters of British dogs are depressed – how can we improve their mood?

A dog lying in bed at home looking sad. (Getty Images)
Why the long face? (Getty Images)

It seems it's not just humans whose mental health is suffering, but the nation's beloved dogs' too – and it's going to take more than a walk to cheer them up.

Nearly three quarters (74%) of UK hounds – roughly as many as 8.8 million – show behaviours indicating anxiety or depression, with 18% displaying symptoms weekly, new research has found.

But if you're not quite sure what low mood looks like in canines, then the most common signs to be aware of include loss of appetite (36%), destructiveness (32%) and low activity levels (31%).

Pet pooches might also have a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy (30%), be hyperactive (29%) and incessantly bark (29%) – often a sign they're bored or frustrated.

Dog lying on the floor next to bowl full of dry food and refuse to eat, no appetite. (Getty Images)
If your dog isn't eating, they could be feeling low in mood. (Getty Images)

Only 36% of dog owners report being able to spot the signs of poor mental health in their pets, while over 24% admit they didn't even realise their pooches could suffer from these issues, according to the research by Guide Dogs.

That's not to say owners aren't proactive, they are, with 28% saying they look for ways to raise their dog's mood – the most common being going on a long walk (58%), petting them (58%) and giving them their favourite treat (51%).

However, dogs need more – they need proper mental stimulation. But with this evidently missing from many canine's routines, a third (34%) of owners say they weren't aware not giving a dog a brain workout could cause behavioural issues, with just under a third (30%) oblivious it could cause changes to mental health at all.

So, why are dogs depressed in the first place?

Vet Kate Costaras of Joii Pet Care points out that, just as Covid-19 has taken its toll on us, it's taken its toll on our four-legged friends too. “During the pandemic many people welcomed new pets into their families," she says. "As normality has slowly returned, many pets are being left at home for longer periods for the first time. Whilst some dogs will be relaxed when left alone, others may become anxious and frustrated."

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Dog looking out the window. (Getty Images)
Many dogs were bought in lockdown and are now being left by themselves for long periods of time. (Getty Images)

As well as the symptoms described above, Costaras says poor mental health in dogs can also manifest as separation-anxiety problems, house soiling, panting, hyper-vigilance and extreme passivity.

The good news is there are several ways dog-owners can help – the Guide Dogs study discovered owners didn't realise giving a dog a LickiMat accessory (80%), grooming them (76%), food puzzle games (56%) and using interactive toys (54%) could all be effective ways of boosting their mood.

While dog owners spend between 46-60 minutes per day trying to stimulate their dog, it seems the key component missing is variety. Guide Dogs advises that age and energy determine the amount of stimulation a dog needs, but all owners should do enrichment activities little and often. Aim for quality not quantity, switching it up to make it interesting for your dog.

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Chief Scientific Officer at Guide Dogs, Dr Helen Whiteside, says, "It's an outdated viewpoint to think that dogs just need a walk or two a day to be content. Without different forms of mental stimulation, dogs can begin to show signs of behavioural issues, such as anxiety and frustration, which can have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing."

Costaras echoes this with, "Caring for a dog is not as simple as food, water and two walks a day. They also need human interaction, mental stimulation and time alone to rest and relax."

Her suggestions for achieving this include, "Rather than feeding a dog from a bowl, they can be fed using a scatter feeding technique, snuffle mats or puzzle feeders.

"When pet parents do leave a dog alone, owners can provide them with toys that can be manipulated to release treats to act as a boredom buster and also leave a background radio on for them."

She also recommends, "All toys and games should be changed weekly because dogs need plenty of variety and this will help stave off boredom."

Read more: Why normal noises could be stressing your dog

Girl playing frisbee with dog. (Getty Images)
Dogs need far more stimulation in their day-to-day activities. (Getty Images)

But in efforts to improve doggy mental health, exercise is vital too. However, Costaras encourages owners to research the type of exercise their specific breed requires, and how often, as this will vary.

"Extra stimulation can be provided by varying the location of walks and situations (such as agility, scent classes, fly balls and walking with different doggy-friends)," she adds.

"It is important to continually train dogs, even as an adult, to provide them with mental stimulation – contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks!”

Read more: 'Dogs are paying a terrible price for our choices': Consequences of demand for pandemic puppies revealed

Group dog walking. (Getty Images)
Make sure dogs have other doggy companions, if that works for them. (Getty Images)

However, while these are all beneficial methods to try, Costaras emphasises that, rather than tackling it alone, "as soon as an owner sees any change in their pet's behaviours it is incredibly important they seek a veterinary professional's advice because some issues can be related to an underlying medical issue".

"Once a dog has been given a clear bill of physical health, pet parents could even seek the help of a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB) who can work alongside them to improve a pet’s emotional state," she suggests.

But can dogs have clinical depression in the same way as humans, that can be treated with medication? “In some cases, anxiety medications and behavioural modification medications may be required," she advises. "But these will be prescribed by a veterinary surgeon in conjunction with a behavioural assessment from a CCAB animal behaviourist."

"Just like humans, medication must be combined with a tailored treatment plan to improve a dog’s behaviour and mental state."