On Tuesday, my puppy, Penny, didn’t eat her lunch. She’s been healthy and apparently happy for the seven months since she joined our family, and has never missed a meal, treat or stray crumb. But I was prepared for this, and diagnosed her with pre-menstrual stress.
Later, when she was sick, I realised she’d probably chewed too many sticks.
It never crossed my mind that she may be depressed. Her life is flush with walks, warm beds to snuggle in and lots of attention. But this week the charity Guide Dogs announced that 74 per cent of Britain’s 8.8 million dogs could be showing signs of depression and anxiety and 18 per cent may have symptoms every week.
It sounds like a canine mental-health crisis. The figure “one in four” is often used for poor mental health in human adults: could it be that as our mental health has plummeted in the past two years, the wellbeing of our dogs has followed suit?
Experts have predicted a surge in these problems as owners return to work and pandemic puppies have to adapt to drastically reduced hours with their humans.
Penny tends to look for trouble when she’s not getting enough attention. She has a morning walk followed by a long nap. When she wakes she eats, finds a toy and brings it to me.
She only needs 10 minutes of intense playtime, but if I turn away to meet a deadline, 15 minutes later I’ll find her emptying the recycling box or shredding a loo roll.
She might get the hump during my daughter’s bath and bedtime and get a slipper between her teeth and come and show me that she’s chewing it because she wants to play. This feels like standard puppy behaviour, not a cause for concern.
“It’s outdated to think that dogs just need a walk or two a day to be content,” explains Dr Helen Whiteside, the chief scientific officer at Guide Dogs.
“Without different forms of mental stimulation, dogs can begin to show signs of behavioural issues, such as anxiety and frustration.”
Penny’s puppy trainer told me that five minutes of a mental workout, such as doing some scentwork with treats, can demand far more from a dog than physical exercise. We have rubber toys you can hide treats inside, there are also real puzzles around for dogs and if you’re balancing home-working and pet care, these toys are like live-in daycare.
But how can I tell if my dog is actually depressed? Guide Dogs says the most common symptoms are loss of appetite (36 per cent), destructiveness (32 per cent) and low activity levels (31 per cent).
Food-based problem-solving puzzles: Hide treats under cups and move the treat around, releasing it when the dog chooses the right cup.
Foraging for toys and treats: Satisfy your dog’s natural urge to hunt, problem-solve and play. Use household items to hide the treats instead of buying toys.
‘Sniffari’ walks: Try walks that go at the dog’s pace, allowing them to stop and sniff wherever they like.
Interactive toys: Give less active dogs a reason to move – encourage owner and dog to play together.
Sensory activities: Teach dogs to find smelly items or treats, or turn on a bubble machine in the garden.
Physical activities: An agility course might suit some breeds. Create your own using tree stumps, low walls or other obstacles.
Hyperactivity, incessant barking and a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy are other signs. This sounds to me more like boredom or frustration – but these are contributing factors to overall wellbeing.
According to the Kennel Club, different routines or environments – divorce, house moves, children growing up and leaving home or the change in working patterns so many are experiencing at the moment -can cause depression in dogs.
Many owners are proactive – according to Guide Dogs, 58 per cent will take them on a long walk or pet them when they notice signs of unhappiness, while 51 per cent offer treats – but these feel like baseline requirements to me.
It is not yet clear what will become of many pandemic pups, but I really hope that the vast majority are continuing to get regular walks, treats, love and much more.