If Your Dog is Looking Sad, Read This To Help

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© Prystai/Shutterstock.com

Written by Maxwell Martinson

Published: October 13, 2022

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It’s easy to forget that our dogs are subject to the same range of emotions as we are. Dogs don’t have the same capacity for nuance and emotional complexity as we do, but that doesn’t mean they feel any less.

We’re equipped with the same nuts and bolts when it comes to brain function. We have a lot more brain mass, but dogs still have limbic systems.

The limbic system is an ancient emotional and behavioral command center, situated snugly inside our various lobes that deal with higher levels of functioning. Dogs have them, we have them, and so does the rest of mammalian life.

That’s all a way of saying that dogs can get sad.

Understanding Dog Sadness

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Dogs can get sad for simple or complex reasons.

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The trouble with dogs getting sad is that they’re innocent, loving creatures who don’t have the ability to create a self-care plan to feel better.

They don’t deserve to feel sad, and many of their emotions are painted with broader strokes than ours. For example, you might have the ability to reason through feelings of rejection or depression, coming out on the other side with a game plan to start feeling better. A dog simply experiences that sadness until it goes away.

Fortunately, canine sadness might be a little easier to remedy than a case of chronic human sadness.

Experts believe that dogs’ psychological and emotional lives are mostly contained to their immediate experiences. This means it’s typically easier to find the source of their sadness because there are limited contributing factors.

If you’re sad in your personal life, you might struggle to identify the root. Your root could come from an unsettling conversation with a friend from three years ago. It could also be caused by something abstract that you’re not yet aware of.

These kinds of causes are far less likely when it comes to dog sadness, although dogs might be sad for deep and complex reasons. Let’s take a look at some of the key contributors to canine sadness along with potential solutions for owners to explore.

1. Underlying Illness

Canine Conjunctivitis

Dogs can get sad as a result of a medical condition.

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In many cases, an otherwise happy pup will show signs of sadness due to an underlying illness. The illness could be causing them pain, anxiety, and general stress.

Further, many canine illnesses aren’t easy to see at first. In fact, one of the first signs of illness could be a change in the emotional state of your dog, particularly when it comes to its energy level.

Low-energy behavior is often synonymous with sadness. A dog that’s laying down more, failing to get excited at the same things, or eating less will start to look sad very quickly. Odds are, they are sad if those things are happening.

Still, sadness might not be the root of those issues. Sadness is likely a side effect of whatever is causing them to lose their luster for life.

How to Treat Underlying Illnesses

If your dog starts to show unusual and lasting signs of sadness, the first thing you should do is see your vet. A veterinarian will take a scientific approach to your dog’s behavior and provide you with some options for recovery.

If there is an underlying illness, they’ll have the knowledge to get them feeling better so they can be themselves again. This should always be the first step when you’re dealing with lasting changes in behavior.

It’s important to note here that guessing the illness or assuming the right treatment can be dangerous for your dog. Dogs don’t display the same behaviors as humans when they experience various illnesses.

Avoid Human Solutions

Medications and human wellness solutions aren’t usually effective for dogs because dogs’ bodily systems are different from ours, even if they share many of the same parts.

For example, a human medication like Ibuprofen is safe for us because we have the right enzymes and biological tools to break down the recommended dosages. Over-the-counter medications are highly concentrated substances, effective within a specific dosage threshold.

In the case of Ibuprofen (along with many other medications), dogs have a very tight threshold of safety. In other words, the amount of the substance needed for healthy results is extremely close to the amount that’s toxic for them.

This is the same reason that dogs can’t have the ever-present artificial sweetener, xylitol. The point is, go to the vet before you start taking a plan of action!

2. Loss & Grief

A young brindle French Bulldog

Dogs will display sadness in the wake of a loss.

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Dogs grieve as well.

Whether they’re losing a beloved canine friend or an owner, many dogs will display signs of sadness in the wake of loss. Just like humans, dogs will experience grief differently according to their personality and their relationship with the deceased.

It’s impossible to know exactly how a dog feels when they realize that someone is gone. It may or may not be as intense as it feels for us, but we can be pretty sure that it’s a very sad experience, if only because they miss the individual so much. It’s not unusual for a dog to be noticeably sad for a while (a week or two) after the death of a loved one.

Beyond the immediate feeling of loss is the absence of activities that the deceased once enjoyed with the dog. If your dog lost their best canine friend, all of the things they used to do together are now different. The dog, then, doesn’t have as much stimulation or happiness throughout the day.

The times your dogs spent together while you were at work are now time spent alone for the remaining dog. The joy of going to the park together is now a little different as well.

In the case of a dog grieving another household dog, you might expect your pup to behave a little differently moving forward. Dogs file into roles when they’re placed in packs, and the loss of one individual means that the remaining dog will have to adjust.

This can have an effect on their emotions, especially at first.

How to Help Your Grieving Dog

If your dog is struggling to deal with a loss, the best thing you can do is to keep a healthy schedule. A big aspect of their sadness is the lack of stimulation and enjoyment that came from time spent with the other individual.

You might have to make some changes to your own life and schedule to accommodate this. In particular, it might be necessary to spend more time with your dog doing things that they enjoy.

Death is a natural part of pack life, and dogs get over loss just as they have done for thousands of years. Still, the process can be challenging and you have the ability to lessen their suffering throughout the ordeal.

Doing daily activities, upholding a clear feeding and playing schedule, and giving your dog more attention are all things that will mitigate the sadness and bring them back to their former selves quicker than they would otherwise.

3. Chronic Hip & Joint Pain

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Hip and joint pain can cause your dog to be sad.

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This one could be classified as an underlying illness, but it’s so common that it deserves its own section.

Older dogs are very susceptible to pain and general stiffness of the joints. Causes for this include arthritis, hip dysplasia, bone-growing disorders, and inherited genes.

Selectively breeding dogs for various purposes for over 10,000 years has allowed us to own a diversity of wonderful, talented pups. Still, those slight shifts warp our dogs’ bones and muscles in ways that aren’t necessarily advantageous to their health.

For example, take the Yorkshire Terrier. A small dog that was once bred to hunt small mammals is now mostly confined to the home, jumping up and down from couches, beds, and chairs. The impact of those jumps takes a toll on Yorkies, and many experience joint pain or injury.

Similar examples exist for many breeds. Hip and joint pain makes life more difficult for dogs, but it also prevents them from the things that they love. So, they’re in regular pain whenever they move and they’re in the absence of the things that once brought them joy (fetch, running, long walks).

This is a recipe for sadness if there ever was one. So, what can you do?

Treating Hip & Joint Pain

Even though our dogs might be at a disadvantage genetically, there are still numerous things we can do to prevent or diminish arthritic pain.

Shed excess weight

The best way to prevent this pain is by managing a healthy weight with regular activity. The same is often true for treating hip and joint pain if it already exists.

Excess weight and obesity are huge causes of arthritic pain in dogs. If your dog is overweight, it’s best to start with a shift in their diet. Your vet is a great person to talk with about what changes to make and how long it should take to start seeing results.

Each pound your dog loses equates to a little less pressure on its aching joints. Once you reach a certain point, the joint will start to recover in the absence of excess pressure.

Physical therapy

You can also put your dog through a number of physical therapy treatments. The most common ones involve passive range of motion exercises, where your dog is expressing the movement of its joints without pressure from body weight.

These treatments involve harnesses in most cases, or you can guide the movements while the dog is on their back. There are also professionals who can oversee these treatments for you.

In professional settings, you might be able to try aquatic therapy. This is a therapy that uses an underwater treadmill, allowing your dog to work on their joint function while standing without the pressure of any body weight.

Hot and cold treatments can also be effective for treating pain and reducing inflammation.

Dietary Supplements

Finally, there are a number of hip and joint chews, oils, and other supplements that owners claim to have had success with. We say “claim to have had success with” because some of the options aren’t backed by enough peer-reviewed research.

That said, a large number of owners claim their dogs have benefited from glucosamine, green-lipped mussel, curcumin, and even CBD for Dog Anxiety.

If you stumble upon one of these options, it’s best to do some research on reputable brands, then bring the idea to your vet before trying anything.

4. Sudden Changes in Routine or Environment

Any sudden changes to your dog’s life could cause an episode of sadness. New work schedules for owners, the introduction of new pets, or anything else that fundamentally shifts the dog’s schedule could be a possible source of sadness.

In most cases, these changes make a dog sad if they reduce the time spent doing enjoyable things. For example, a new baby in the house could equate to a lot less time going on walks or playing in the yard.

A new pet in the house could mean the same thing, or it could really change the way your dog exists in the household. Moving to a new house might cause a similar disruption, producing anxiety and confusion about daily life.

How to Cheer Your Dog Up After a Change

If your dog is looking sad, ask yourself whether or not anything has changed. If something has changed, ask yourself what your dog is missing as a result.

Is it playtime, time spent with other animals, your attention, or something else? Once you’re confident about the answer, make an effort to fill the gap with whatever was missing. That could mean extra walks, coming home on your lunch break for some quality time, more treats, or whatever else your dog might need.

5. Trauma

Unfortunately, there are too many dogs who have been subjected to abuse. Further, dogs living on the streets for any period of time might be traumatized in one way or another.

Many of our wonderful shelter pets have experienced trauma in some form. In many cases, that trauma leads to anxious behaviors that interfere with daily life. Further, the trauma leaves triggers that could upset your dog at any moment.

If these things are present enough, they could take a real toll on your doggo’s health and happiness. Trauma is certainly a reason that your dog might appear sad from time to time.

How to Help a Dog with Trauma

There are ways to help your dog cope with, and recover from specific traumas. It’s very important to find some method of recovery because trauma often puts a wedge between your dog and the things that would otherwise make them happy.

For example, they might be afraid to go on walks or step outside the front door. They might even be afraid to be petted or rubbed. Other dogs might have extreme anxiety around feeding or being in the presence of males.

All of these things interfere with the things dogs need in order to be happy. A good behavioral specialist or trainer might be in order to help dogs with these behavioral issues.

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About the Author

Hi! I'm Max and I'm a writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I've been freelancing for more than five years and love the freedom and variety that this profession offers. Animals are also a big part of my life, and a lot of my time is dedicated to playing with my cat, Herbie.

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