Whether you have school-age children at home or are just a student of life, back-to-school season is a great time to think about keeping our minds sharp. And this isn’t just limited to the two-legged! Furry friends have mental health needs, too, and there are a number of factors that can affect the cognitive and psychological wellbeing of your pet.
Before you start sharpening pencils and packing lunches, brush up on these three key influences on the canine and feline brain—and read what you can do to keep everyone healthy and happy.
As your four-legged friend enters the golden years, plaque begins to form in the brain. This causes certain brain cells to die off, which can dull mental abilities and produce changes in behavior. The onset of age-related cognitive decline is usually fairly obvious, and symptoms worsen over time. You may notice your pet seems confused or disoriented, restless, or newly lethargic. Learning new tasks or even remembering familiar routines can become a challenge.
To help keep mental reflexes sharp for as long as possible, try to constantly create new and enriching experiences for your pet. Using puzzle toys or feeders, changing up the route of your walk, teaching new training tricks and trying new activities together can go far in helping you both stay mentally fit. As is the case with humans, age-related mental decline is often the result of bad habits—so be sure your pet has a nutritionally balanced diet, a consistent exercise regimen and plenty of opportunities to socialize.
Believe it or not, pets can experience mental illness. Dogs in particular appear capable of depression—though maybe not the same sort of depression humans suffer. But once a veterinarian has ruled out conditions like pain, hormonal or electrolyte imbalances, cognitive dysfunction and heart disease, symptoms like loss of appetite, inactivity, hiding, withdrawal and excessive sleeping can sometimes be attributed to depression.
Most cases of doggie depression are triggered by major life changes, like the loss of a pet parent or “sibling” pet, moving into a new home, job and schedule changes (like during back-to-school season!) and following surgery or significant illness or injury.
If you think your dog is becoming depressed, contact your veterinarian immediately for help. The majority of dogs who develop depression can be treated at home and usually recover within a few weeks. But some dogs require antidepressant medications to ease them back to normal.
Acute stress and generalized anxiety are very real mental conditions pets face, along with compulsive disorders, fears and phobias and in severe cases, even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Separation anxiety is common in the first weeks of the transition back into the school year. A stressed pet will exhibit signs such as vocalization (howling or crying when you’re gone), destructive behaviors, nervousness (especially at departure times), and frantic attempts to escape. Some dogs get into such a panic that they can injure themselves scratching at the door, chewing on the baseboards and mutilating the window blinds desperately trying to get out.
If your dog isn’t quite at that level, you can help him stay calm and feel secure in a few different ways. Don’t make a big deal when leaving the house, leave him with something to do (puzzle toys and Kongs make great doggie-sitters), use a Dog Appeasing Pheromone collar or diffuser and make sure he gets plenty of exercise every day.
Dogs with serious separation anxiety are suffering and need professional help. Alert your veterinarian as soon as you notice any abnormal or undesirable behaviors.
Mental health is a less-talked-about topic when it comes to pet wellness, but it is no less important than physical health. If your pet appears to be experiencing age-related mental changes, shows signs of mental illness or acts out because of stress, your veterinarian should always be your first line of defense. Together, you can come up with a treatment plan that best fits your dog’s needs. Remember: the best predictor of successful treatment is early intervention!