It used to be a simple, convenient, and uncontested truth: Dogs make humans happier, and conversely, we humans make dogs happier. Now new research is problematizing the notion that dogs are as content with being our pets as we think they are. That has prompted some self-proclaimed animal lovers to chime in with radical views:
- One dog owner laid out a “case against pet ownership” in an April 11 article for Vox.
- Another dog owner—and author and animal ethicist—argued in an interview with NPR the same month that our dogs aren’t just a little unhappy; they’re downright “miserable.”
Such claims can be disturbing for the dog lovers among us who dote on our pets with walks, treats, and cuddles on the couch. But, before we all trade in our beloved dog for a robot toy pet made of wire and steel, what does the new research really say, and what might it suggest about cues to look for when gauging the contentment of our furry friends?
What the Research Says
Remember the animal ethicist who spoke with NPR? She cited a couple of studies. One of them, a Finnish study, looked at the medical records of nearly 14,000 dogs and concluded 75 percent suffered from an anxiety issue. A different study out of Japan found that 86 percent of dogs had behavioral issues, meaning they were struggling to adapt to aspects of their environment.
Mental Health Cues to Look for in Your Dog
Anxiety and depression are two of the more common mental health issues in humans, but they can also be cues that a dog isn’t happy. Sometimes these feelings may be short-lived. They can also develop into a more chronic problem which, in severe cases, may require medication.
One example might be a dog with severe separation anxiety. Their owner’s absence may cause them to become frantic with anxiety to such a degree that they chew and destroy furniture, pee and poo in the house, pace back and forth, howl and whine, and express an overabundance of excitement when their owner returns.
Other Types of Anxiety
Separation anxiety, though very common, is not the only type of anxiety that can affect dogs. Rescue dogs that have spent an extended period in a shelter may have anxiety stemming from specific traumas. For instance, a dog picked up by animal control may be afraid to ride in a car.
Dogs can also suffer from social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder. They may have a specific fear or phobia such as hypersensitivity to noise.
Depression is another cue to look for, especially if it occurs with life changes such as a move or the death of an owner or pet companion. The main indicator would be a loss of interest in activities that once gave your dog joy, according to the American Kennel Club in an April 2021 article. The AKC said increased clinginess or the opposite, withdrawing, can also be signs of depression.
In the great many instances of canine anxiety and depression, there is now a pill for that. Prozac and other anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants have helped many desperate dog owners.
Do these latest studies signify the end of pet ownership as we know it? Not for a very long time, if ever. What they do offer is an opportunity to become better connected with the dog(s) we own and love. A happier dog is a happier owner, after all.