Can Dogs Be Mentally Challenged?

Written by: Milica Brzakovic
Can dogs get mentally ill, just like us humans? This is a relatively new field of study, event though it's not a new question. This article will let you in on some answers.

Dogs are emotional animals that are highly intuitive.

It’s no surprise that dogs can experience various feelings and feel all kinds of emotions.

However, can they be mentally challenged?

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions and can include various disorders that affect mood, behavior and thinking. Some are a result of a genetic disorder, while other can occur after a brain injury. This is a field that has been, and continues to be, rather explored when it comes to humans.

On the contrary, research in this area when it comes to dogs is still quite new and not developed enough. However, that doesn’t mean that it should stay this way So, we’ve decided to take a closer look at this and answer the following question:

Is It Possible For Dogs To Be Mentally Ill?

Considering the various health conditions behind this term, it’s safe to say that dogs too can be mentally ill. But in what way? Can they suffer from the same disorders like us?

Both yes and no! Some disorders can indeed affect both people and dogs, such as depression and anxiety. On the other side, conditions such as Down syndrome are not that easy to determine and it hasn’t been proven yet if Down syndrome is possible in dogs, the same way it is for us. But more about that later!

First of all, let’s focus on some of the most common behavior challenges dogs can experience.


Depression is rather common among dogs and can occur due to changes in the environment, especially in their family. Depressed dogs are similar to depressed people and show similar signs. Fortunately, depression can be cured, as it’s a mental illness, not a mental challenge.

The biggest difference between mental illnesses and mental challenges is that the illness can be cured, while the challenge is for life.

Symptoms of depression can include:

Separation Anxiety

This is also a very common mental illness among dogs. And as such, it can be treated! Separation anxiety is a panic disorder caused by an area in the brain controlling fear and stress. As the name indicates, problems occur when the dog is left alone and it feels abandoned.

The anxiety attacks usually start as soon as you leave the house and as a result they’ll tear the home apart. In addition, the dog will bark and howl, which is its way of showing distress.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Did you know that dogs, just like people, can suffer from OCD? Naturally, it manifests differently in dogs, but they both have in common obsessive behavior in different forms. It usually starts due to stress, but then it becomes a habit. Some of the most common OCD manifests in dogs are:

  • Pulling out clumps of hair
  • Biting themselves until they bleed
  • Lick everything they come across, in concentric circles
  • Chasing tail in circles

Fortunately, the mental illnesses above can be cured or managed, as long as you arm yourself with patience and knowledge on the subject. Let’s find out how!

How Are Mental Illnesses Treated?

The good news is – the conditions mentioned above can be treated! However, it won’t happen overnight and you will have to start from the very beginning – the source of the problem. Before starting the treatment, you have to try to figure out the cause.

Mental illness is unfortunately often misdiagnosed as a behavioral problem. If you treat it as such, you are definitely setting your dog up for failure. Instead of treating the symptom, like a behavioral problem, you should be focusing on the cause behind it.

For instance, if your dog is depressed because of a loss of a family member, you can consider getting him some company. You can also spend more time than usual with him, by taking long walks and doing other things that increase the secretion of hormones.

When it comes to separation anxiety, medication and desensitization training will be necessary to alter this behavior. The goal of desensitizing is to remove the scary factor out of the owner’s departure.

Finally, OCD is often treated by the pharmaceutical Prozac. For milder cases, removing the source of the stress will be beneficial, if you determine the proper cause. Of course, don’t start the treatment on your own. Take your dog to the vet in order to see if there’s a physical problem behind this kind of behavior. If not – determine the proper treatment plan, but whatever you do, don’t punish as it will only be counterproductive!

The bottom line is – mental illnesses can be treated and controlled, as long as you determine the proper cause behind the problem and show patience and love!

Continuing, we wanted to answer some common questions as far as dogs and mental challenges go!

Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome?

Down syndrome is caused by extra genetic material, more precisely when an individual has a full or partial copy of chromosome 21. This has numerous implications, both medical problems and different physical features. But can the same happen to dogs?

The answer seems to be – no. First of all, people have 23 pairs of chromosomes while dogs have 39. So, even if the duplication were to happen, it would probably have different effects on dogs. However, no similar condition has been described in dogs as of yet. Three explanations could be behind it:

  • These chromosomal abnormalities usually lead to early death in dogs
  • The genetic testing necessary to identify Down syndrome in dogs isn’t finished
  • The condition doesn’t exist in dogs

What About Other Congenital Conditions?

The reason people often ask if it’s possible for dogs to have Down syndrome is because some conditions have similar symptoms and can be taken for Down syndrome. A good example is congenital hypothyroidism, caused by low or non-existing levels of thyroid hormone. This condition leads to some of these symptoms:

  • Slow growth
  • Broad head
  • Short limbs
  • Abnormal gait
  • Delayed opening of eyes and ears
  • Delayed tooth eruption

Some other conditions that could be confused with down syndrome are congenital hydrocephalus, growth hormone deficiency and pituitary dwarfism.

Can Dogs Be Bipolar?

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, characterized by extreme mood swings. A bipolar person goes through phases, during which they feel extremely down or extremely up. Considering the fact that dogs are emotional beings, you may ask yourself if they too can suffer from this disorder?

Even though it’s true that dogs can have their “ups and downs” as well, it wouldn’t be correct to put a label on it and call this behavior bipolar. Dogs have mood swings and some can even be aggressive without any apparent cause. However, this is called idiopathic aggression and shouldn’t be confused with bipolar disorder.

Can Dogs Be Schizophrenic?

This is an interesting matter. As you now know, dogs can indeed suffer from various mental illnesses, but schizophrenia is not one of them. For more information check out this article on schizophrenia and read this condition seems to be typical only for us humans!


So…what’s the verdict? Can dogs be “mad”?

Lauren Braitman, Ph.D, wrote a book called Animal Madness in 2014, based on scientific research and personal experience. We quote:

“Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry: experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws.”

So, the bottom line is – yes, it seems that dogs, even though they don’t experience everything that we do, still can suffer from mental illness or be mentally challenged. Our best friends can also be depressed, anxious or obsessive compulsive!

Stay tuned, as this is definitely a field that has yet to be discovered and there’s so much we don’t know about dogs’ minds! Before you go, check out Lauren Braitman talk about “animal madness” in the video below.