Mental Illness in Dogs

Mentally ill dogs will show the first signs of illness by the age of 5 weeks.They show symptoms such as difficulty learning, getting along with other dogs, relating to humans and their surrounding, and difficulty learning. These mentally challenged puppies act similarly like children with Autism. Some fearful pups show exaggerated startle reflex while others show aggression and become potential biters which causes them to bark excessively. By age 3 years their condition has already peaked. In-breeding is usually one of the causes of mental illness in canines.

It is necessary to keep environmental stimuli to minimum because like humans, pets with autism need calm environment. No loud noises, touch them gently, and of course, a stable home situation. They do not interact well with children too. Their special diet should be followed and must consist of meat and no grains. Medications prescribed by the vet may also be beneficial.

Mental Illness and misbehavior both exist in human and beast. With the humans we tend to think of depression and schizophrenia, but these mental illnesses also exist in animals. A dog with mental illness may be violent even when unprovoked, or is destructive of property. These signs should not be mistaken for misbehavior.

Often, mentally ill dogs are misdiagnosed as having behavioral problems. Pet owners treating it as such are bound to fail for treating the symptom rather than the underlying cause. In mild cases, the dog startle and hide at the sound of loud noises. In severe cases, the owner of mentally ill dog may get bitten by their pet. An uneducated pet owner will leave his mentally ill pet untreated and later on he may have him euthanized when the pet is at his worst. The owner may also excessively punish his pet over something he has no control, due to his mental illness.


Depressed dogs resemble humans that are depressed, they look and act depressed. They do not want to play, go anywhere nor do anything. These dogs become couch potatoes. Changes in environment especially the family unit is typically what triggers depression in dogs.

  • Slowed movements 
  • Anxious, restless, aggressive behavior 
  • No desire to play 
  • Wants to sleep all the time 
  • Weight loss/gain 
  • Loss/Increase of appetite 
  • Decreased fluid consumption 
  • Shedding of fur at an off-season for them 
You may consider getting your pet an animal companion if he is having depression due to a family member that is no longer in the home. Spending more time with your pet may also help. Walk with him, it will increase hormones secretion that is known to elevate their moods. 

Separation Anxiety

Another common mental illness in dogs is separation anxiety. They become anxious and extremely upset once their owners leave. The pet cannot control his behavior. An area of the brain that controls stress and fear is causing separation anxiety, which is a panic disorder. This disorder is very common in dogs adopted from shelters. On the other hand, it is rarely seen in puppies. Separation anxiety is a fear of being abandoned by their owners. Dogs experiencing this will usually have the severe anxiety attack within the first 15 minutes their owners have left.
Signs of Separation Anxiety:
  • Howling - The dog will voice out distress by barking. 
  • Havoc - He may wreak havoc in the attempt to find you. 

To change their behavior, medication and desensitization training will be needed. In desensitization, the pet will have to sit and stay there as the owner gradually steps away from him and then out of the room. The dog stays and learns that the owner will return. The goal here is to take the fear of the pet out of the pet owner's departure. It takes dedication and patience since it is time consuming. Many veterinarians may refer the owners to a behaviorist.

Catch it if you can
Catch me if you can
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Tail chasing is not a healthy behavior no matter how delightful it is in our eyes. It is a common sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in dogs. It often manifests when the dog is stressed. Dogs with this disorder are known to pull out clumps of hair and bite themselves until they bleed. These areas become open infected sores. Some dogs lineup stuffing pulled out of pillows in geometric forms while others lick everything in concentric circles. The usual drug of choice for dogs with this disorder is Prozac. In milder cases, distraction and removal of the source of stress is beneficial.

As of yet, there is so much we don't understand or know about our pets' brain. What we know is that dogs can be mentally ill for many reasons. There are various treatment options to help mentally ill dogs. If your pet has a mental condition, take care of all his needs, physical, social and emotional. When in doubt about his condition, check it out with your vet.
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  1. Thank you for the article, even if nobody is commenting. I have a 5-6 year old female Boston Terrier who was rescued less than a year ago and she is most definitely showing symptoms of autism. Your descriptions are spot-on. I had her (Ruby) on a grain-free diet for some time, but switched to a quality food that my other Bostons eat and the severe symptoms seem to have reappeared! I do not want to medicate Ruby, as she is not aggressive and seems to benefit from being a close companion to me. She's one of those dogs that must be worked with daily to keep her engaged and to prevent her slipping back into a fearful state. She'd come to rescue as a stray and appears to have been a breeder, so inbreeding is a real possibility. Thanks- I'm going to switch her back to her grain-free diet.

  2. You're very much welcome! Ruby's lucky to have a dedicated owner who understands where she's coming from and who's willing to help her keep calm.

  3. I think grain-free is the best.

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  6. I am so upset about my 68 pound Gorgeous Irish Setter (Field type). My husband says she's mentally retarded. Maybe she is. That's why I looked this up. I know she is needy and clings to me all the time. She hates loud noises and literally shakes uncontrollably during hunting season. We live in rural Central NY. She does have hypothyroidism. We are her third owner, and have her since she is 1 year and 8 months old. She is now 4, going on 5 on March 20th 2016. She loves her crate, but tears the hell out of the bedding cushion, getting comfortable. She loves riding in the car with me, of course. Is there a test to determine whether she is just needy or has a mental disorder. She also has accidents in the house which is a first for me. She doesn't know how to ask me to let her outside. We have three dogs. Kerry is the only one who doesn't get it. When it comes to treats, she watches the other two. We have learning sessions where they have to sit, down, stand, stay & wait... The collie is brilliant. The little red setter is impatient and usually does the command, but will try all of them to get the treat. Kerry Ann just looks at the treat. When she doesn't get it, and I repeat the command and help her understand, she does get it. The first two owners bought her to be a bird dog for which she was trained. She didn't want to hunt grouse for nothing. So, I got a discount in purchasing her. They didn't know about her hypothyroidism. We discovered that with help from the vet, and she is on meds now for life. She doesn't like the cold at all. Her accidents are usually located in the living room by the slider to the deck. She looks outside and thinks she is, and so she goes.... even if I am there seated on the couch. I have replaced the rug twice so far, and will do it again this summer. I have to watch her behind like a hawk. If I want to relax, I have to close the door to the room in which we are. She doesn't have accidents usually anywhere else, but I never know if, not watched, she will sneak to the warmth of the living room and look out of the slider and just go. Urine is the worst. I am a life long (64) dog owner and lover and have never had to deal with this ever. The other two make it very clear when they want to go out. Kerry doesn't know that she is supposed to. Oh, maybe she does have a mental illness. We love her so much in spite of her quirks. She cowers and rolls on the floor. I thought the hunters beat her. She does a tail wagging deep voice growl when startled which is at everything.... a TV bell sound, us opening the door, foot steps. She is not aggressive, would never bite us, but is very protective of her "dolls" (stuffed or un-stuffed dog toys). Sometime, she stalks the collie who loves to play with the stuffed animals... just because the collie took Kerry's "doll." That is the only aggression I have ever seen from her. But, as I am home and very attentive to Kerry, there is never really a problem. I do not believe in discipline by "hitting" at ALL. If there is a test out there to determine her mental illness, please let me know. I will definitely bring this up at our next vet visit for shots in April. Thanks in advance. Private responses to my email preferred. (I may not find this site again.) Eileen M. May (two m's in the email address)

  7. I have an old English bulldog 8 months old all she wants to do is sleep and sit by me. She don't really care for anyone else but she is good when the kids are sitting playing with her. I don't know if she is depressed or retarded because everyone keeps telling me she is. I've had her 2 weeks now and I have only heard her bark 3 times

  8. I have a dog that came from the humane society. We live alone together but her separation anxiety has only increased in the four years that I've had her. I want to be able to have her socialize with other dogs and their people but, due to lack of a car, I can't. It breaks my heart to hear her grief when I leave. She sounds as though she feels that I'll never come back and she'll have to go to doggie jail again. (Although I'm pretty sure she doesn't remember her time behind bars, I do think that she still carries mental scars from all of that trauma.)
    However, when I do come home, it seems that she slept most of the time I was gone.
    I've tried recommended solutions for separation anxiety but none of them has worked.
    I think the problem is that it is only the two of us. And, when she got out a couple of times, I must admit that I was anxious. Maybe she worries about me the same way I worry about her...

  9. Hello, I'd like some advice on my dog Nubs. He's a 1.5 year old pitbull and definitely inbred (he's a rescue from a puppy mill). He was the runt and a few birth defects were immediately noticeable, for instance he only has 3 paws (ergo the name), his eyes are at different levels, and one of his ears is very off to the side, though this you can't really notice now that he's grown. I also believe that he's got some mental deficiency as well. He's terrified of loud noises, doesn't take well to training and is visibly uneasy around anyone that's not me (though I'm aware this is a personality trait of some pits), and he's chewed his own tail to bleeding 4 times now, which just isn't normal. The biggest hint and what's bothering most is his refusal to make eye contact. I believe that's the key to his training problems, but he just won't, and there's really no way I see to help it. If anyone knows any tips or tricks to deal with dogs with this behavior, it'd be helpful. Thanks!

  10. Dogs CAN have mental retardation; humans have it. Mental retardation is not unusual in domestic dogs.