In May 2011 when Colaba resident Rajashree Khalap lost her ten-year-old dog, Lalee, she and her husband weren't the only ones in the family who were heartbroken. "My other pet, then three-year-old mixed-breed Kimaya, who was very attached to Lalee, was distraught," says the 50-year-old wildlife conservationist.
Lalee, says Khalap, had a severe allergic reaction to some cement, which was lying at home and passed away in the car while being taken to the vet. "Kimaya hadn't seen what happened to her. She just saw us rushing out with Lalee and then returning without her. In hindsight, I feel we should have brought the body home and allowed Kimaya to understand and come to terms with what had happened," she adds.
Even as Khalap and her husband grieved, Kimaya too stopped eating. Normally, "a greedy little dog", she'd curl up and sleep most of the time, showing little interest in food. Examinations by vets threw up no medical conditions, which is when Khalap took her to Dadar-based canine behaviourist and trainer Shirin Merchant who told her that while Kimaya was depressed, she was also picking up on Khalap's mood which made it worse for her. Merchant warned Khalap, "If you don't change your behaviour, you will lose your second dog, too."
MIRRORING THE MASTER
"Most people," says Merchant, "attribute human qualities to their pets. Finding a pet 'depressed' could merely be our point of view of the situation." All animal behaviour is rooted in survival and most animals find a way to recover from a loss or a change in locale.
"What does affect pets more is the mood of the humans they are attached to, and any change in routine," she says. So, as soon as there's some stability in the pet's life, the signs of depression will start disappearing.
DEALING WITH TRAUMA
While a pet may reflect changes in the owner's behaviour, depression could also be the result of abuse or other kinds of trauma. Churchgateresident Aadore Sayani recalls a stray dog at Oval Maidan who had disappeared for a few weeks and was later found at Vashi. "He showed signs of injury so we took him to the vet who, on investigation, said that it looked like he'd been sexually abused. Once playful and friendly, he was just not interested in people around him anymore," says Sayani. Getting the dog back to his natural state, she adds, took a few months and spending plenty of time with him.
Often even taking dogs out of their natural environment or roles can cause stress. Labradors, for instance, are retrievers who were bred to use their noses and scent things out. Siberian Huskies are not just meant for a colder climate but also spend hours pulling sledges. Being cooped up in Mumbai apartments, with two half-hour walks a day is a far cry from the free environment they were meant to live in. "Giving them something to do can improve their mood," says Merchant, who suggests taking the dog to a park where he can run freely.
Khalap, who on Merchant's advice brought in a trainer to work with Kimaya attests to the change that regular activity brought to her dog's moods. "She loved her training sessions, which were reward-based and she got lavish praise, petting and delicious treats for everything she did," says Khalap, adding that her pet who'd earlier be timid around other dogs managed to walk near other dogs without panicking after a few lessons around Oval Maidan. "As for her meals, from the day of her first lesson she regained her normal appetite. And keeping busy with Kimaya cheered me up, too," says Khalap.
As in humans, one of the top signs of depression in animals is avoiding contact, says a south Mumbai homeopath, who also treats animals for depression. "You'll find your dog curled up in a corner or, if they are strays they will hide under a car," she says, adding that cats will get into cupboards and slink into a corner there.
Not eating, she says, is usually a sign of illness — kidney problem or a stomach bug. If it persists over a couple of days and all other tests are normal is when the pet is diagnosed with depression, she adds. However, it's not just dogs and cats who are sensitive to loneliness. "I've seen parrots and cockatoos pull out their feathers in anger and depression when left in isolation for long periods," she says. Placing a mirror in the cage, or rattles — things that will make a sound — help them get better, she adds.
When all other signs of illness have been set aside, should mood elevators be given to the pets. Merchant says that while allopathic medicine for depression are available in the West, what's available in India is a generic medicine for mental health. And even this is advised in rare cases and only by prescription. Dr S V Vishwasrao, Bandrabased veterinary surgeon, cautions, "Treatment would be incomplete and ineffective without the love and personal care of the pet parent.
Figuring out what triggers depression is the key to solving this problem. Medication may be required in some cases. But it is important to rule out other contributing systemic diseases and central nervous system disorders that can cause similar symptoms."
By Gitanjali Chandrasekharan
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