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Depression in Animals: An Overview

In Article
July 24, 2019

By Devi Ragesh
Do animals get mental illnesses? With the awareness on mental health amongst humans on a rise, it is safe to conclude that the society is progressing towards a better stage.

However an area with much less scrutiny is noticeably mental health in animals. Although, we do not in many cases, expect or comprehend the idea that animals too can suffer from mental illnesses. This often stems from the fact that animals cannot express themselves in terms of speech and also that they are not as developed as humans in terms of cognition.

The first question to be addressed in this regard is: do animals get depression? National Geographic on their article ‘Do Animals Get Depressed’ says, the answer is difficult to discern as they (animals) can’t communicate clearly as humans do. Hence, they are analysed based on their behavioural tendencies. But can this conclude the answer as no? Some scientists were of the opinion that depression in humans are analysed by a set of symptoms that are subjective, and that other mammals too have the same set of wiring in their brains for emotions as humans.

Now if that is the case, if animals are also susceptible to mental ailments, then which animals are prone to such illnesses, what are the symptoms and how do they deal with it? National Geographic concluded that on studying the facial expressions of a monkey (closer to human beings) by behavioural experts, it was easier to detect emotions such as sadness and agony.

The lack of studies and research regarding the issue is undeniable because of which there isn’t concrete information on how it affects the animals. In the case of wild animals, it is said that their ailments may hinder their survival, and make them more vulnerable to being preyed upon. In the case of domestic animals, symptoms and behaviour of such ailments are easier to identify with. There are often cases of pet dogs, changing their behaviour when left alone at home, anxiety in losing their owners etc.

A 25 year old dog owner said that, “On leaving him (dog) alone the first time for a day’s course, he became very upset. When I came back at night, he had not touched his food and barked incessantly. When I tried petting him he tried to bite me”. This instance proves to us, that domestic animals are capable of having emotions. If the dog got angry, it is highly probable that it can get sad or even depressed.

It is a common occurrence that dogs experience anxiety on being separated from their owners. Some resort to self-harming techniques such as scratching itself till it bleeds or destroying things such as chewing on doors, sandals and so on. What isn’t of common knowledge said the article, is how “veterinarians often prescribe or administer antidepressants to dogs with behavioural issues”.

It would be incomplete not to mention Hachiko, a dog in Japan who was loyal to his master Ueno even years after his death. A movie made out of this true story depicts how the dog goes to the same spot his owner left for work, which continued for years after his death. A bronze statue in honour of the dog to this day stays at the Shibuya Station, Tokyo.

Discussing about mental ailments in animals further leads us to the question: can animals commit suicides? Are animals capable of something of that range that requires visualisation and enactment of their own deaths? “But these values reflect those of society at a certain time. There was a spate of articles in the late 1800s about animal suicides, including dogs who dragged themselves to the graves of their masters to die, a cat that hung herself after her kittens died, and horses who would kill themselves after years of maltreatment. There is even a famous bridge in Scotland where dogs have been throwing themselves to their death for years,” says research associate Duncan Wilson, University of Manchester in the article ‘Can Animals Commit Suicide’ to Live Science. Wilson also proceeds to confirm how animals are driven by a sense of self-preservation mostly.

Animals also face extreme levels of sadness and anguish when they undergo separation with a fellow animal with which it shares a strong bond. Nineteen year old cat owner reported that, “two of my cats that were together since birth and were recently separated as one was put up for adoption. The other one suddenly lost interest in everything. She stopped eating and starved herself to sickness.” This kind of inactivity often results in death for many animals.

Animals also express displeasure to come back to its home after interacting with their fellow- mates. This is often the case with dogs. They enjoy time spent with other dogs in parks, animal shelters and so on. This is undoubtedly due to the emotional bond they develop with fellow creatures. Dog owners often report how dogs enjoy going for walks, meeting other dogs and playing with them. On having to part with them, they express unwillingness and cranky behaviour. Often lack of interaction with humans and other animals is detrimental to the animal’s health.

How does one normally analyse whether an animal is suffering from something such as depression? As we discussed above, since animals can’t communicate, their actions and conduct are observed. The loss of interest in pleasurable activities is the most common step to analyse depression in animals and humans. Depression in cats and dogs have been widely observed due to them being the most common pets that people have. The loss of interest to eat food and lack of sexual drive are some common measures to analyse patterns of depression in domestic animals.

Nowadays after finding the theme of depression in animals silly and trifling, veterinarians have changed their views and the drug manufacturing industry has come up with animal designed antidepressants which is an undeniable money minting business now. Although there is much more to be clarified and studied in the field of animal mental health, what is proven now is how animals can improve mental health in humans.

Having a pet is shown to assuage disorders such as panic, anxiety, stress, depression and so on. Pets offer unconditional love and support which helps human beings to overcome feelings such as loneliness and sadness. With more young population too opting for pets, it is proven that a pet, in many cases a dog will lower your blood pressure, increase exercise, emotional well-being and responsibility. It is no wonder why people today opt for a dog when going through a difficult phase of their lives.

However, it is also important that they are not just a source for your own happiness and well- being. They deserve lot of care and attention too. Many often say that getting a pet is like having a new-born. Well it is true in terms of care and attention a pet deserves. They should also be provided hygienic surroundings and company. Many often adopt pets and are too busy to take good care of them which leads to the pet developing physical ailments and mental ones too that may go unnoticed. One must come to the realization that this is a cruel and unfair deed to the animal. Only opt for a pet if you are sure to give back the love, attention and care that you receive from it. With that being said, it is important to invest more in research and studies that focus on the cognitive and other behavioural studies in animals.

A healthy coexistence of humans and animals can be made possible ultimately only if we try and understand the adaptation of animals to their surroundings and habitat and realize how important it is necessary for us as the intelligent lot to treat animals with care and responsibility.