3 facts you may not know about your pet’s mental health

A responsible owner knows all about their pet’s health and wellbeing. You make sure to give them enough food and water, to take them to the veterinarian for regular check-ups.

But what about your pets’ mental health? Have you ever stopped to consider what’s going on inside your furry friend’s brain? Here at RSPCA NSW, we want to shine a light on all the important stuff happening up top.

Here are three useful facts you need to know about your pet’s mental health.

#1 Fearful behaviour can be easily misunderstood  

Mental health in pets

Fear is a normal behavioural response and the instinctual feeling of worry that results from a variety of stimuli. Fear can result from being scared or threatened by a person, object, or the surrounding environment.

Animals who are afraid will usually try to get away from what is making them uncomfortable. They will do this by physically moving away, or displaying body language to indicate they are uncomfortable and would like you to move away. It is important to understand that in many cases, aggression is a display of fearful behaviours.

Fearful behaviours can typically be categorised into the following groups, known as the 4 F’s:

  • Fiddle: displays uncertainty and internal conflict and encompasses displacement behaviours, which are normal behaviours displayed out of context. These include yawning, lip licking and ground sniffing.
  • Freeze: displays uncertainty and internal conflict. It is the act of an animal becoming stiff in the body and can be seen before an animal acts upon the situation. It can lead to an animal shutting down.
  • Flight: is the act of an animal physically removing himself from the situation.
  • Fight: is when an animal believes he has no other recourse but to act aggressively through the use of threatening behaviours such as growling, baring teeth, lunging and biting.

#2 Mental enrichment is just as important as physical exercise

Mental health in pets

Being a responsible pet owner means making sure your pet has enough mental stimulation to see them through the day. Examples of proper enrichment include kongs, toys, filled clamshells and puzzles. Regular training is also another wonderful way to stimulate your pet.

We talk more about enrichment for your pet’s mental health in our ‘How to protect your pet’ blog here. You can also watch the video below to find out how we use enrichment to help the animals in our shelters.   

#3 There’s no such thing as a ‘guilty dog

Mental health in pets

We’ve all seen the look: head lowered and body leaning away, ears down, not making eye contact or eyes widened and whites showing (whale eyes), even licking their lips or yawning. Is this a sign of a ‘guilty dog’?

According to a 2009 study conducted by dog cognition scientist Alexandra Horowitz, humans tend to anthropomorphise their dogs. Simply, we think a dog looks guilty because this is a human emotion we commonly associate with doing the wrong thing.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to design an experiment to conclude whether or not a dog has the capacity to feel guilt. However, what we do know is that the behaviour your dog is displaying, that you are perceiving as guilt, is actually fear. They are reacting to their owner’s cues about the situation (e.g., raised voice, scolding) or are displaying a learned behaviour from previous punishment.

If your dog is regularly displaying any of these behaviours in a number of different situations, our recommendation is to contact your local veterinarian, a dog behaviourist, or a dog trainer who specialises in positive, rewards-based training. These professionals will be able to help get to the root of the problem (whether it be medical or behavioural) and offer you practical tips and advice.