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Mental Health & Illness in Dogs and 6 Ways to Help Improve it | Pupford

December 27th, 2023

Filed under Health + Wellness

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As a society, we’ve come a long way when it comes to mental health. While unfortunately more people are suffering from mental health issues than ever, we’re doing a great job of talking about the importance of taking care of our mental health.

It’s time we extend that conversation about mental illness and challenges to our dogs! After all, they have undergone tremendous changes in their lives alongside us over the past few years. Think of how the pandemic disrupted your daily routines and mindset – there’s a good chance your dog was impacted too.

So let’s talk about mental health in dogs. More specifically, we’ll cover:

  • Common mental health issues in dogs
  • Causes of mental health issues in dogs
  • Signs of mental distress in dogs
  • How to help a dog struggling with a mental health issue
  • When to get professional help for your dog


dog laying on the couch looking sad | Pupford

Did you know that dogs experience some similar mental health conditions to humans? The difference is how they process their condition and what behaviors follow.

Let’s take a closer look at the three most common mental health issues in dogs. ⤵️


Just like humans, dogs can experience anxiety for different reasons. Sometimes they develop anxiety from a disruption in routine, separation, or traumatic experiences. Anxious dogs might experience:

  • Excessive licking
  • Timid behavior
  • Excessive yawning
  • Pacing
  • Trembling
  • Whimpering
  • Trouble settling down
  • Changes in eating or drinking habits

Related Reading - Dog PTSD Guide: Symptoms, Treatment & Why It Happens


While experts still aren’t sure if dogs’ brain chemistry reacts exactly how ours do during an episode of depression, we do know they can experience an overwhelming sadness that presents similarly to human depression.

Dogs suffering from depression (even seasonal depression) may experience:

  • Appetite loss
  • Energy loss/lethargy
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Avoiding playing, social interaction, and other activities they enjoy


While dogs don’t necessarily experience Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since they don’t have obsessive thoughts per se, they can display compulsive behaviors.

The key here is compulsive. It’s completely normal for your dog to bark, lick, chew, etc. as they’re instinctive to your dog. But it could be an issue when they do it consistently and can’t seem to stop.

Compulsive behaviors can potentially be dangerous. Licking, for example, can cause skin injuries while chewing can result in your dog swallowing something toxic.

These behaviors typically start as a way to soothe themselves during something uncomfortable (like a thunderstorm or injury) so they continue to seek comfort in the behavior.


dog laying on the floor | Pupford

While mental health struggles – human or canine – are highly personalized, there are some general explanations when it comes to your dog’s anxiety, depression, or compulsive behavior.

Typically, mental health issues for dogs stem from abrupt significant life changes and/or traumatic events like:

So if your dog has recently experienced any of these or similar events, pay close attention to their behavior and look for signs of mental distress.


Whether your dog has recently gone through a major life event or not, it’s important to know the signs of mental distress in dogs. Knowing the signs of anxiety, depression, and stress can help you intervene early and make things better for your dog.

Here are the common signs of distress and/or mental illness in dogs:

  • Changes in appetite and eating patterns
  • Attention seeking
  • Withdrawal from activities and social settings
  • Inability to relax
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Showing the whites of their eyes during interactions
  • Significant posture, body language, and behavior changes

Remember, any behavior change that interferes with daily routines or interactions warrants attention!


dog playing with ball outside | Pupford

Nobody wants to see their dog suffer. The good news is there are things you can do as a dog parent to help your dog when they’re struggling with these issues.

  1. Observe your dog often - The best way to know when something’s wrong with your dog is to know their normal behavior inside and out. Learn their body language and routines so you can easily spot any of the signs of distress we discussed before. We have a Basics of Dog Body Language guide that can help you.
  2. Provide enough exercise - Exercise gives your dog a positive outlet and can help reduce the “problem” behaviors that come along with mental health issues. Try to include a mix of walks, nature hikes, indoor games, and outdoor adventures to get the most benefit.
  3. Provide mental enrichment - Anxiety and compulsive behaviors thrive when your dog is bored. Providing sufficient mental enrichment through nose work, puzzle games, and enrichment toys can tap into your dog’s natural instincts in a productive way – leaving them satisfied and tired. Check out this video on mental enrichment activities to do with your dog.
  4. Give your dog space when they need it - It’s tempting to smother your dog with attention and physical touch when you see them suffering. But that can make an anxious dog more anxious. A great strategy here is to have a crate or other dedicated area where your dog knows they can go to “switch off” and relax undisturbed when they need to unwind.
  5. Give your dog their idea of comfort - If you want your dog to be happy, do what makes them happy! If your dog loves trail walks, find a new (safe and dog-friendly) trail for some exciting sites and smells. If your dog loves to chew, consider getting them a new dog chew variety or chew toy. If your dog loves to chase, make sure to schedule regular fetch appointments – you get the idea here.
  6. Know when you need more help - Just like humans, sometimes dogs need the help of a professional. And. That. Is. Okay. It does not make you a bad dog parent if you need to reach out to a dog trainer/behaviorist or veterinarian. If your dog’s mental health issue is causing them to be very destructive, put themselves in harm’s way, or causing injury (like excessive licking/biting), reach out to a professional sooner rather than later. That way you can address the immediate issues while creating a plan to tackle the bigger picture.

It may seem scary or discouraging to have your dog go through a mental health issue, but educating yourself on the causes, signs, and ways to help is so important!

While we can do things to help our dogs with their mental health, they also help us so much!


As we've laid out, dogs can experience mental health issues and illnesses similar to humans. While there is still much to learn about our dog's mental health, dogs can experience things like depression, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors.

Some of the best ways to improve our dog's mental health are to establish good routines, provide adequate mental enrichment, and ensure your dog has enough physical exercise.

Have you ever had an experience with anxiety, depression, or compulsive behavior in your dog? If so, let us know what helped them in the comments!

And on a similar note, if you're feeling guilt about your dog's mental health, be sure to check out our dog mom (and dad) guilt article here.


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