Sad yellow lab lying on grass

Is My Rescue Dog Depressed?

If you have adopted a newly rescued dog who is not as energetic as you would expect, you may wonder if he is depressed. Dogs express their emotions differently than humans through body language rather than facial expressions. Dogs simply do not have the same type of facial muscles as humans. Therefore, they can’t smile, frown, or look angry. So, we need to pay attention to our dog’s body movements and actions to interpret what he might be feeling. Additionally, a dog’s behavior will also give us some important clues.

Dogs who have been rescued or have lived in a shelter for a while can certainly be depressed, often with good reason. Dogs may exhibit various signs of depression. Your pup may be very lethargic, sleep excessively, or have a poor appetite. Also, if your dog shows a lack of interest in connecting or playing games with you, he could be depressed.

Symptoms of Depression in Rescue Dogs



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Dogs who end up in shelters have usually experienced some sort of loss or life challenge. Even though most dogs are eager to leave the shelter and go to their forever home, they may begin to show signs of depression shortly after adoption. Here are some of the signs to watch for:

  • Tail is limp
  • Ears are laid back or limp
  • Withdrawing and hiding out
  • Not interested in eating or drinking
  • Sighs or whimpers a lot
  • Sleeping most of the time
  • Extreme lethargy
  • No interest in physical activity like going for walks or playing
  • Licking or chewing paws excessively

Dogs certainly have many of the same basic emotions as humans, such as fear, anger, and sadness. Just as with people, long periods of sadness can turn into severe depression. When sadness is coupled with feelings of anger or fear, a depressed dog may also become very anxious. This can lead to aggression, but more often, a dog will become clingy and very needy. See my post, Why is My New Rescue Dog So Clingy? to find out more about this behavior.

Triggers that Can Lead to Depression

Rescued dogs who have been taken out of horrific situations such as puppy mills, labs, hoarding, or abusive owners are often depressed by the time they are saved. They have often been treated poorly, isolated and kept in cages, underfed, and sometimes physically abused. In many cases, their spirits are broken. Their quality of life has been dismal and they have given up and shut down.

Depression in both people and dogs can be complicated and challenging to sort out. Depression in dogs can be triggered by three major factors: 1.) horrific rescue situations; 2.) one of the life situations below; or 3.) a genetic, mental health condition.

More common reasons that can cause any dog to be depressed include:

  • Death or loss of their owner or a family member
  • Loss of another pet in the household
  • Being rehomed
  • Boredom and lack of stimulation
  • Loneliness
  • Physical problems that restrict their mobility or quality of life
  • Arthritis or other painful condition
  • An owner who was home a lot has returned to work or school
  • Birth of a new baby
  • Mental health problems

Depression Can Have a Serious Impact and be Complicated to Sort Out

“You could have a very, very anxious dog that has a lot of behavioral suppression. It really kind of freezes or shuts down and that whole process can lead to depression. The dog doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to do much of anything. It doesn’t want to engage and, consequently, removes itself from social interaction.”

Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM and ACVB Diplomat

Sorting out some of the triggers for depression in your dog can be important for making a diagnosis as well as a treatment plan. In some cases, more than one factor may be involved. Therefore, owners should try to learn as much as they can about their rescued dog’s past. Additionally, paying attention to any changes in your dog’s behavior following major life-changing events can offer clues as well.

The American Kennel Club, (akc.org) addressed some of the many triggers very well in their post about dog depression. They interviewed Dr. Leslie Sinn who runs Behavior Solutions and is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) and certified professional dog trainer. According to Dr. Sinn, “You could have a very, very anxious dog that has a lot of behavioral suppression,” adds Dr. Sinn. “It really kind of freezes or shuts down and that whole process can lead to depression. The dog doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to do much of anything. It doesn’t want to engage and, consequently, removes itself from social interaction.” But Dr. Sinn also adds that dogs are very resilient and they can recover.

Treating and Supporting a Depressed Dog

Helping a Newly Adopted Rescue Dog Who is Depressed

If you have just adopted a new dog and he is depressed, be gentle, kind, and patient with him. Pet and cuddle with him if he allows it. Otherwise, give him plenty of space and talk to him in a reassuring, positive way. Don’t leave him alone for the first week and offer him high-value treats like chicken, cheese, or soft dog treats. Keep putting his meal down at the same time each morning and evening even if he only picks at it. Please see my post How to Comfort and Heal Rescue Dog for a comprehensive guide to helping rescue dogs.

Try to get him out for an early morning walk around your neighborhood. This will boost some good hormones as well as his spirit, and get him moving again. If your dog is severely depressed, it may take several months to get him out of his shell. So, don’t expect too much too soon. After he has been with you for several weeks, try to teach him to play. Some dogs have never had the opportunity, so this may be a new experience. See my post, How to Play with a Rescue Dog for more information about introducing your dog to play activities and toys.

When Dogs Become Depressed Due to Life Change Triggers

If your dog seemed okay when you adopted him, but later became depressed, try to pinpoint when you first noticed a change in his behavior. If you can tie it back to something such as making a move to a new home, bringing home a new baby, or the death of a family member or pet, then your dog may need some extra love and attention.

Spend more time playing and cuddling with him. Take him on some new adventures such as a new park or hiking trail or to your favorite outdoor cafe. Even reading to your dog can be very soothing and reassuring. Just engage with him more in any way you can. The grief he may feel could be from feeling displaced by a new baby or adopted pet. Or he may be grieving a loss. Time, kindness, and more loving attention will eventually help him move through his grief and sadness.

If your dog is left alone a lot he may be bored and lonely. Dogs are very social animals either as part of a pack or a human family. They depend upon and rely on their immediate circle of support and are not happy on their own. Yet, so many people only adopt one dog and then leave him at home alone all day when they work or go to school.

If this is your situation, please take him to doggie daycare as much as possible or hire a dog walker. Yes, it can be expensive, but pet ownership is a big responsibility. If you can’t afford to hire someone, you may be able to get help from friends, family, or neighbors. You can also think about adopting a second dog, so they can keep each other company.

Medical Intervention

Regardless of the cause of your dog’s depression, make an appointment with your veterinarian and get him fully evaluated. If your vet suspects a mental health problem he may recommend a specialist. Like humans, dogs can also have mental health problems that are often genetic in nature. Medications to help with depression are available for dogs, and in some cases, they may be necessary. Your vet can also recommend other supportive measures.

A complete physical examination may help identify medical problems and conditions that could cause your dog to be more subdued. One of my rescue dogs recently began to limp a lot and hobble around on three legs. She slept a lot more and was reluctant to move once she laid down and settled in. I took her to the vet and discovered she had the beginning of a hip problem which was probably out of alignment and sore. After a few days on anti-inflammatory and pain medications, she recovered and started racing around as usual.

Final Thoughts

Adopting a rescue dog is rewarding for you and life-saving for your dog. If you think your dog is depressed, there is a lot you can do to help. Be patient, loving, and gentle with your new ward. Get professional help if needed, but don’t give up! Dogs are very resilient and respond well to positive environments and loving treatment.

Depression is an illness like anything else. Time truly does heal most wounds, but loving care makes the most difference!