During this Mental Health Week, the peak body for veterinarians, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is reminding pet owners to keep a watchful eye on the mental health of not just people, but also their pets.  Like humans, mental illness in pets can develop and it’s important to diagnose them and commence treatment as early as possible.

A spokesperson for the AVA and veterinary behaviour specialist, Dr Jacqui Ley, says “While there is no hard evidence on the rate of mental illness in animals, it’s reasonable to conclude that statistically, it’s the same as in humans – that is, one in five suffer from a mental health condition. Given the number of pets that end up in shelters because of a behaviour-related problem, one in five is certainly a reasonable, possibly conservative statistic.

“The key is for pet owners to seek veterinary advice if they notice unusual behaviour in their pet. Some dog owners go directly to a trainer for help, but your veterinarian should always be the first port of call. They will then be able to advise on next steps,” she said.

Signs of mental illness in pets

In dogs, a mental illness commonly manifests in the form of:

  • aggression towards people or animals
  • fears and phobias, for example of thunderstorms
  • compulsions such as tail or shadow chasing
  • cognitive decline in older dogs.

Dr Ley says that as dogs age, it’s normal to expect the brain to slow down a bit, but some are developing serious cognitive health conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, which is going undetected.

“As a behaviour specialist, I don’t get a lot of owners of older dogs seeking help for serious cognitive problems, which is a concern because it means these problems are going untreated.

“For an older dog suffering from cognitive decline, they’ll often display a loss of learned responses such as where it’s supposed to toilet or getting lost in its normal environment. They’ll also become increasingly anxious and even wake at night. Unfortunately, it’s easy for owners to dismiss signs of serious cognitive problems as simply their dog getting on in age and mentally slowing down.

“But there’s normal ageing and abnormal ageing and we know that both dogs and cats can develop a form of Alzheimer’s. For dogs older than seven years that are displaying abnormal signs of ageing, a visit to the veterinarian is critical in helping to identify and address any existing mental health issues. While we may not be able to cure the pet of the illness, through a combination of adapting its environment, modifying its behaviour and sometimes medication, we can manage the illness giving the pet a chance to live a quality, happy life,” Dr Ley said.