Can Dogs Sense Depression? (Yes or No)

In this blog post, we answer the question, “can dogs sense depression?” We then discuss the evolution of and the science behind their sense of depression. We will then understand in more detail about dogs feeling what their humans do, depression in dogs, and how to manage the same. 

Can Dogs Sense Depression?

Yes, dogs can sense depression. Let us find out more about this below.

Dogs have a distinctive ability to predict and respond to human beings. What makes a relationship between dogs and humans special is their ability to read each other. It is common knowledge that dogs usually know what their owners need exactly even before the owners do. 

We can infer our dogs’ moods from their behaviors. However, can they do so with us? If yes, can dogs sense depression?

Indicators of Dogs Sensing Depression

Dogs extend support to humans in times of need, get hyper when we do, and protect us in times of danger and when we are scared. In times of risk and threat, they get vigilant to provide a sense of protection. 

Dogs sense depression through their heightened sense of smell. Upon sensing a depressed mood, they go out of their way to raise our spirits. Dogs use their incredible sense of smell to absorb their environment. 

They use the same sense to detect changes in our bodies, especially that of chemicals. For example, when we sweat more, our dogs smell this and act accordingly.

Approach

The first indication that the dog is smelling one’s depression is when the dog comes closer than typically seen and attempts to calm down the individual. The dog may approach the human in a peaceful, unintimidating way. For instance, their tail may be let down and not up in a vigilant manner.

Touch

The dog may also place their paw on the individual to try and comfort them. Certain dogs are more discerning and would lean into the person to express support when the individual is ended of a cuddle. 

Distract

Similarly, if the dog knows that their owner is fond of kisses, they may start pressing their nose on the owner in an attempt to kiss them. Also, if the dog knows their owner takes an interest in playing, they may retrieve a toy to encourage the owner to play with them.  

Therefore, if their body language and other behaviors are any of the following, they are sensing depression:

  • Lowered tail;
  • Tilted head;
  • Licking; 
  • Raised paw;
  • Leaning in;
  • Approaching in unintimidating ways; and
  • Playing 

Evolution of Sense of Depression in Dogs

Long back, wolves were among the first animals to be tamed and domesticated. Wolves became dogs after several thousands of years of natural selection and evolution. 

Based on the wolves’ utility and responsiveness to humans’ needs, they got closer to humans. Those dogs with higher perceptiveness and responsiveness to human emotions were the ones likely to procreate and carry on with their bloodline. One manner in which they anticipated and assisted in humans’ needs was through their olfactory sense to understand human emotions.

They gradually began relating different smells to different human emotions being expressed. Moreover, they absorbed everything they observed with every sense of theirs. Dogs started inferring several human emotions from the way we appeared, sounded, and mainly, smelled. Those dogs appropriate with their responses were lauded, and they formed tighter bonds with their human beings.  

Nowadays, there are infinite breeds of adoring dogs everywhere. All of them are perceptive and intuitive; they form deep, meaningful connections with humans and learn through observations and experiences. 

Science Behind Dogs’ Sense of Depression

The olfactory (smelling) modality is a dog’s most robust out of the five sense modalities. Dogs can smell the production of and changes in several chemicals in our brain and body. Interestingly, they have 44 times the number of olfactory receptors compared to humans (220 million and 5 million, respectively). 

Dogs smell the increase and decrease in glucose levels, which is incredibly beneficial to people with diabetes. 

Similarly, dogs can smell the increase and decrease in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in depression. Further, dogs can smell cortisol, a stress hormone that plays an integral role in anxiety levels. When they sense an increase in cortisol, they attempt to comfort the individual before it could manifest as anxiety or stress.

Additionally, dogs are excellent at designing a soothing atmosphere wherever they are.

What Else Do Dogs Know?

Dogs know several other things about their owner, such as:

When the Owner Is Being Unfair

One study found that when dogs see their owner being more attentive to a pet other than them in the house, they become stressed and feel anxiety.

When the Owner Is Mad

Dogs perceive emotions and body language that are related to their owner being upset. They hate to upset their owners; they give them the “puppy eyes” in the hopes of changing the status quo. It is recommended that the owner counts to ten, pauses, and treats the dog instead of punishing them.

When the Owner Has New Priorities

For example, the birth of a baby in the family makes the dog perceive the displacement of attention from them to the new member. Such perception may cause the dog to feel anxiety and may even lead to resentment for the baby. To ease into this transition, start playing baby sounds beforehand, such as Baby Sounds for Pets. 

When the Owner is Scared

In times of fear, the dog perceives the emotions. Some breeds may then proceed to protect the owner, while some may be as scared as their owner. Mostly, dogs are highly perceptive of fear in their owners.

Dogs Feel what their Humans Do

Dogs typically turn to humans to understand the way to deal with and respond to their surroundings. If humans display a sense of tranquility and confidence, the dogs perceive their environment to be safe. Likewise, if humans get anxious, dogs become vigilant for any signs of threat. The dogs start feeling anxious, as well.

People with anxiety or depression begin behaving differently. One of the behavioral changes could be a lack of engagement in activities they used to with their dogs (e.g., going for walks, playing). 

In turn, this behavior affects the dog, and the dogs do not understand what to expect anymore. These dogs might not receive adequate stimulation, activity, and attention, leading to problems in them as well.

Even Dogs Get Depressed

Just like human beings, dogs also get depressed. Although it is not explicitly diagnosed in them, veterinarians and behaviorists encourage dog owners to have adequate knowledge about this. This awareness helps them understand the different signs they can look for to get timely interventions.  

There could be several reasons that cause depression in dogs. These factors include a change in the dog’s environment, family setup, response to their owner’s depression, or any traumatic event like losing a loved one. 

The signs owners can look for include:

  • Exhibiting low activity levels
  • Excessive sleeping;
  • Indications of aggressiveness or anxiety (e.g., through infrequent howling or whining);
  • Loss of previously learned behavioral training;
  • Change in eating patterns;
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyable things; and
  • Loss of interest in the things they once enjoyed

….and Here Is How You Can Help!

Fortunately, there are ways the owners can help once they find these indications. Here are some of the ways to help: 

Pay more attention to them.

One of the ideal ways to help is to pay more attention to them when they are sad. With that said, make sure not to overdo it, as even they require space and time to work on their feelings. 

Socialize

Being social creatures, dogs get their spirits raised when around other dogs. There are a few ways to make them socialize with other dogs, for example, by attending daycare sessions for dogs or even attending training sessions.

Active Life

Fresh air helps not just humans but also dogs. Incorporate this into their lives by starting with regular walks in the outdoors. 

It is likely that with inadequate stimulation, dogs get bored, and this boredom translates into sadness. Similar to human beings, when stimulated, there is a surge of dopamine and serotonin, two types of neurotransmitters that help elevate one’s mood.

Structured Routine

Stability in life brings joy even to them. Ensure that your dog knows their activities for each day, as this aids in the healing process. For example, it could be something as simple as going for walks at a similar time each day or knowledge of what’s for lunch/dinner. 

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we found the answer to the question, “can dogs sense depression?” We then looked into the evolution of and the science behind their sense of depression. Further, we outlined the details about dogs feeling what their humans do, depression in dogs, and how to manage the same.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Do dogs sense sadness?

Previous literature showed that whenever human beings wept, their dogs would feel agonized. More recent studies indicate that dogs feel distressed and try to do something to make the situation better when they see their owners cry. 

Do dogs smell depression?

Yes, many owners report that their dogs can sense their depression. Even in the absence of any signs, dogs can smell fear and stress. They can sniff the uprise of hormones created by stress, such as adrenaline and cortisol. In some cases, the dog senses these emotions even before the owners do.

How do you know your dog is depressed?

The following is a list of signs that your dog may be depressed:

Withdrawn – the dog lacks in enthusiasm for activities that they usually enjoy, such as exercise or games;
Poor appetite – your dog may show a lack of interest in food, or there may be other eating habit changes;
Restlessness – they may seem restless and may not be sleeping adequately, or there may be other changes in their sleep;
Lethargy – your dog may be sleeping excessively; and
Behavioral alterations – there may be issues like loss of toilet training, aggressiveness, chewing, trying to escape, and increased reactivity.

Do dogs sense psychological illness in humans?

Yes, dogs can sense psychological distress in humans. They are known to smell changes in our bodies, and mood changes usually manifest as bodily symptoms. These physical changes may indicate psychological illnesses.

Is it possible for dogs to be mad at their owner?

Yes, it is. However, dogs may not be mad “at” their owner in the typical sense. PetMD shows that dogs feel emotions, but they do not relate blame to those feelings. It may be that the dog is feeling upset. 

Do dogs have a favorite person?

Yes, they do. Dogs typically choose a person whose personality and energy levels match theirs. Further, a few dog breeds tend to form bonds with one particular person, who may be their favorite person and probably their only person. 

Is it okay to hug dogs?

No, it is not okay to hug dogs. Hugging is restricting, and this can cause anxiety and stress in most dogs, according to Dr. Coren. Dogs are cursorial animals (i.e., designed for running fastly). When they feel stressed, they rely on their running skills. Therefore, by hugging, we rob them of this ability, which intensely increases their anxiety levels.

What we recommend for depression

Professional counselling

If you are suffering from depression then ongoing professional counselling may be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

References

https://wagwalking.com/sense/can-dogs-smell-depression

https://www.puplife.com/pages/dogs-understand-5-things-your-dog-knows-about-you

https://dogtime.com/dog-health/63091-anxiety-contagious-dog

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