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Ask a vet: How do I tell if my pet is depressed?

March 8, 2010 |  3:08 pm

Have a non-emergency question about your pet's health? Dr. Heather Oxford of L.A. veterinary hospital California Animal Rehabilitation (CARE) is here to help! In this installment of Ask a Vet, Dr. Oxford offers some advice to reader Allie about identifying and treating depression in dogs and cats:

Sad dog Allie's question: What are some signs of depression in cats and dogs? I've heard stories about dogs being treated with antidepressants. What are your thoughts on animal psychiatry? What other options are available for sad pets?

Heather Oxford, DVM: Veterinarians have the most extensive training in animal behavior of anyone working in the pet industry, and I doubt any one of us has ever prescribed antidepressants as a first-line for animal depression.

The reason is simple: There is a language barrier between us and our patients that does not exist in human medicine. Animals don't come into our offices and tell us that their hearing or vision is failing them, that they've had a chronic headache for weeks now, or that they've been having stomach or intestinal pains that just won't go away. They just look sad. It is our first responsibility to rule out causes of depression that are endocrine/internal, neurologic or orthopedic in origin. A lot of medical causes of depression can be treated, avoiding the unnecessary use of prescription antidepressants.

For the small population of animals whose depression truly can be traced to behavioral origins, I like a natural anti-depressant called S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe). This is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body, made from the amino acid methionine. Although SAMe has many uses, there is evidence for its short-term use in treating major depression by assisting the body in producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. For cats, Feliway diffusers are helpful as well. There are also floral essences and homeopathic remedies that are useful for depression disorders. For animals that need stronger antidepressants, there are prescription-strength drugs available at your veterinarian's office; however, I reserve these for last.

To submit your question for Dr. Oxford, just leave a comment on this post and look for her answer in an upcoming installment of Ask a Vet!

About our vet: Dr. Oxford received her bachelor of science degree at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. She also received a master's of public health degree in epidemiology from Emory University and went on to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She then went to the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine, where she received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree. She practices at California Animal Rehabilitation and is also certified in veterinary rehabilitation and acupuncture. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Wade, and German shepherd, Tess.

Photo: A basset hound may look sad, but for all we know, he's elated. Come on, he's a basset hound! Credit: Julie Markes / For The Times

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