Mental Health in Pets – How to Ensure the Psychological Wellbeing of your Furry Friend

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My first meeting with Charlie is something I often contemplate. Charlie, the recently adopted pup of a close friend, cowered behind a door, and was extremely suspicious of anyone new. I later learned these were defence mechanisms developed after having been ill-treated and then abandoned. She often exhibited signs of distress when left alone and when taken out for walks in public.

During a recent catch-up, I enquired about Charlie’s health, if she was doing better given that the family was now home all the time. To my surprise, my friend remarked that it was much the contrary – her symptoms had been exacerbated by being cooped up, as pandemic restrictions had lessened the frequency of walks and outings. 

As is evident, animals are sentient creatures, and capable of a range of emotions much the same as humans. We tend to lean on them for support, and the scientific proof backing the utility of pets for our mental health is rock-solid. However, what this incident made abundantly clear was that our pets could be confronting mental health issues as well. 

After some research, and talking to more parents and Forfurs consumers, I found that pets could be capable of OCD, depression, anxiety and stress, and phobias. Common symptoms for these are listed below:

  • OCD – excessive licking, chasing shadows and reflections, snapping at flies, and fur/feather removal
  • Depression – apathy, fatigue, loss of appetite
  • Anxiety and stress – excessive destructiveness, agitated activity, soiling, escape attempts and eating disorders.
  • Phobias – hiding from a range of stimuli, shaking, drooling, excessive panting, loss of appetite, aggression, increased destructive behaviour.

These psychological difficulties could arise from past trauma (as is common with pets who previously lived in captivity, in shelters, or were mistreated or abandoned), as well as linked to the death of a familiar, parent or companion, and possibly be caused due to age or reduced activity. 

What is of paramount importance is keeping a close eye on our pets’ behaviour, even if they are seemingly healthy. Given that poor mental health can lead to lower quality of life, identifying potential problematic behaviours, and getting in touch with licensed veterinary professionals, can help from the get-go. Treatment options do include medications; however, it can equally consist of keeping pets active, and working through the issue while reassuring them, and helping them develop coping mechanisms through training. 

Of course, the subject of animal mental wellbeing is rather grey since we can only make assumptions based off their outward behaviour. This is exactly why we need to observe them closely, especially with the lifestyle changes the pandemic has brought on. Being home with your pets is a blessing in disguise – your presence can either liven up a previously apathetic family member, or the increased contact hours can help you pick up on potential difficulties faster. In either scenario, let’s be more aware of our pets and give them the care and support they deserve.