So, can dogs feel dysphoria?
Yes, they can.
Dogs can feel dysphoria in a couple of scenarios. One would be the dog that is unhappy and confused by circumstances, leading to a profound sense of discontent. An example of this might be the dog that is strongly bonded to their owner, who is suddenly taken into hospital. A neighbor takes the dog in, but they feed the dog strange food at different times of the day. Nothing is familiar and the dog feels confused and alarmed.
The other, perhaps more common type of dysphoria is that caused by drugs. We're not talking illegal substances here, but medications prescribed by the vet. All drugs have side effects, and this can include a state of mental confusion and dysphoria.
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Signs of Dysphoria in Dogs
Signs of dysphoria include being restless and unable to settle. The dog may pace up and down. Indeed, many dogs will also whine or howl, as if they've lost all self-control (which they have) and no amount of the "Quiet" command will get them to stop.
The dog may also behave out of character. Some will lose inhibition and may overreact when you go to stroke them. Others enter a state of profound confusion where they don't seem able to work out simple things, such as how to pass through a door. The dog may even sit, staring at the wall or into thin air.
Some dogs become unsteady on their feet, and stagger as if drunk. However, if you have an older dog that suddenly becomes disorientated in this way, always get them checked by a vet. Health conditions such as vestibular disease or a stroke can mimic the signs of dysphoria.
- Being unaware of what's going on around them
- Unable to eat or drink
- Staggering or poor co-ordination
- Unable to recognize you
- Mental confusion
The History of Dysphoria in Drugs
Just as in humans, drugs that are hugely valuable for controlling extreme pain in a few individuals can have undesirable side effects such as dysphoria. As veterinary practices improve their ability to control pain in patients undergoing surgery, so the incidence of dysphoria has risen. This is nothing to be alarmed about since the effect does pass.
However, what is important is that the clinician can make the connection between the strange behavior being due to a dysphoric reaction, rather than the dog being in pain. If they wrongly decide the dog is in pain and give another dose, then the problem won't be resolved.
Happily, modern best-practice now involves the use of pain scoring charts and hospital protocols to assess how the pet reacts and so the difference between pain and dysphoria is more readily spotted.
The Science of Dysphoria in Dogs
So, why would a vet give a drug that could result in the dog being hyper, confused, restless, or agitated?
The simple answer is pain relief.
If a pet has a painful condition or is about to undergo major surgery, then an opioid-based painkiller can make a huge difference to their comfort levels. In the modern age, pain relief is taken very seriously in pets and not to prevent or alleviate discomfort is immoral.
The good news is that it's only a small percentage of dogs that develop dysphoria. The vast majority of dogs do just fine and don't develop a state of confusion. Also, vets have drugs which can cancel out the dysphoria, so especially in hospitalized cases that are closely monitored, the development of dysphoria is often a risk worth taking.
And finally, a word of caution. There is an overlap in the signs of dysphoria, such as restlessness, pacing, and panting, with the natural reaction to pain or even an extremely anxious pet. Therefore, if your dog is not on medication and is behaving in a dysphoric way, it might be they are in pain. If in doubt, contact your vet for advice.
Training yourself to Spot the Difference between Pain, Dysphoria, and Anxiety
A quick recap tells us that all three state of mind show outward clues such as restlessness, panting, alerted awareness of surroundings, possible aggression, crying or whining, and struggling.
If you see these signs, ask yourself about the animal's circumstances and anything which has changed recently.
For example, has the dog been prescribed a new medication for their arthritis? If the dog was previously sore but settled, and now they are pacing and howling, then it may be that the medication has caused dysphoria as a side effect.
Alternatively, if the dog is not on medication but recently fell downstairs, then whining or unusual aggression when handled, could well indicate the dog is in pain. Of course, you may get other clues in addition, such as lameness or holding up a sore leg.
Anxiety can present in many ways but often has a pattern to it. The dog that is restless and whines and barks once you leave for work, but stops when you return, is liable to be anxious. This is because dysphoria doesn't follow a pattern, and if the animal is confused then they will stay confused until the medication has worn off.
Occasionally, dysphoria can be a sign of a medical problem, such as cognitive dysfunction (the doggy form of Alzeihemers), a portosystemic shunt ( a blood vessel that by-passes the liver), brain trauma or a brain tumor.
If in doubt when your dog is acting oddly, always get them seen by a vet.
How to React to Dysphoria in Dogs:
If the dog has recently started a new medication, phone the vet for advice.
Safety Tips for a Dysphoric Dog:
Make sure the dog can't hurt themself whilst in a disorientated state. Prevent them from going near stairs, and if there are hazards such as an open fire, then protect the dog from it.