Can Dogs Be Mentally Challenged or Have Mental Disabilities?

Aaron Rice Expert Dog Trainer
Written: August 20, 2022

As dog owners, we would love to have all questions answered, specifically those that pertain to our pup’s learning capabilities and mentality.

After all, it would clarify so many behaviors and allow us to find the correct solution to many other issues. In short – make the bond stronger and life together better.

While there are many myths surrounding dogs, their mental and physical stimulation, or training methods, mental illness can be present in our dogs. While it is a very complex topic that requires looking into science for more thorough answers, dogs, just like us humans, have brains that are vulnerable to experiencing mental struggles and other forms of neurological disorders.

It is difficult to fully comprehend the whole array of mental disabilities in dogs since they are still vastly misunderstood in humans, but let’s at least talk about some well-known facts.

Mental disorders are not just diseases of the human mind; they’re also found in animals. Animal behaviorists have long been able to recognize some forms of psychosis and depression in animals as well. But just because your dog reacts a little slower does not mean it is mentally retarded.

Several mental disorders exist in the canine world. This article will explore what these disorders might look like and how to tell if your dog has one.

Types Of Mental Disorders in Dogs

Humans can suffer from a mental disorder if they experience a set of specific symptoms, usually related to mood, thoughts, and behavior. A mental disorder is diagnosed when these symptoms last for a period of time, such as at least six months, and you notice an impact on social functioning or occupational performance (social, educational, or work-related).

Quite similarly, there are many types of mental disorders that can be present in the canine world. While experts disagree on whether or not dogs experience depression the same way humans do, the condition can affect them and is usually manifested by extreme sadness, withdrawal, or listlessness. Anxiety, excessive worry, or even OCD, where dogs feel compelled to do things repeatedly because it gives them relief from said anxiety, can all be part of your dog’s life.

Let’s take a look at a few more mental disorders that may affect our furry friends:

Separation Anxiety Disorder 

Probably the most known and understood mental ailment many dogs struggle with – separation anxiety disorder. This disorder is characterized by panic and distress when the dog’s owner leaves home for any period of time (even if it’s just for five minutes). The symptoms worsen as the length of separation increases and may include destructive behavior like chewing on furniture or urinating inside the house. It is also important to note that these symptoms may arise if the pet parent’s routine has changed, such as working from home rather than in an office.

Dogs are social creatures, and even the species’ wild representatives organize themselves into groups or packs. Isolation is undoubtedly the culprit behind dogs’ anxiety as they seek attachment and connection in order to build their confidence. Certain dog breeds, such as terriers or pinchers, are especially prone to separation anxiety, such as terriers or pinchers. 

Noise Phobia 

This is a severe case of fear that can be triggered by specific sounds. There are different noise phobias, including thunderstorm phobia, firework phobia, and gunshot or explosion phobia.

Certain breeds are known for their courage and confidence, while others are more fearful and can be quite timid. The latter is more prone to anxiety and acquiring phobias, such as German Shepherds or Border Collies. While there are ways to overcome such fears and build confidence in a dog, genetics likely play a big part in the timid personality trait. 

Genetics is not the only way to acquire a phobia. Our dog can become fearful due to the lack of proper socialization with the surrounding environment. Socialization does not mean allowing your dog to play with other dogs – it is a process based on exposure to different stimuli, sounds, and sensations. The first sixteen weeks of your puppy’s life are critical.  

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Canine Compulsive Disorder

OCD in dogs is typically characterized by a pattern of behavior, like licking or biting themselves excessively. Dogs with OCD may exhibit obsessive behaviors with no apparent purpose (such as chewing on furniture), spinning in circles repeatedly before lying down, and pacing from one end of the room to the other. Other forms of rituals include chasing non-existent shadows or sunlight, catching imaginary flies, being overly possessive or obsessive with a ball or another object/toy, and licking a body part. 

The primary cause of such behaviors is canine genetics, and the conducted research confirms the presence of the specific gene responsible for these obsessions in certain breeds and their hereditary abilities. Bull Terriers and German Shepherds, and other breeds with a higher pain threshold, tend to spin around chasing their tails excessively. Many researchers speculate that this is related to an excessive amount of endorphin released into the brain. Spinning around in circles is based on a self-rewarding principle – the more turns, the more endorphins, and the more endorphins, the more turns. In extreme cases, dogs may refuse to eat or drink, and their movements may become clumsy. 

An additional factor, and often a driving force behind the obsession, is the dog’s inexhaustible energy levels combined with loneliness and improper socialization or owner’s handling. Dog owners often reward such unhealthy behaviors without being aware of the problem, which becomes an incentive for this type of energy channeling, enabling further issues. 

Canine Behavioral Issues

Sometimes, dogs will just have behavioral issues resulting from something like a traumatic event in their past. Sometimes they are born with these problems that may simply have a genetic basis, and sometimes the problem is caused by an accident or injury that occurred during puppyhood. It could also be a case of cognitive dullness, retarded growth, a genetic disorder, or symptoms of depression.

Canine Generalized Anxiety Disorder

This disorder is characterized by excessive worry that isn’t explicitly triggered by any one event. These dogs will show signs of anxiety in response to events that most would not consider a threat, such as the sound of thunder.

Now, we know what kinds of mental disorders exist in dogs. But how much does it matter if your dog has one? Well, for starters, it makes them more likely to experience anxiety and depression, leading to destructive behavior. It also makes them more likely to lash out at other dogs or humans, making for a depressed pet and an even unhappier owner.

If you suspect that your dog has one of these disorders, but you’re not sure what it is just yet, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your veterinarian. They can do an evaluation and, if need be, prescribe medication or recommend therapy to help your pup get back on the right track.

Mental Disorders in Dogs: How To Recognize

Many people don’t know how to tell if their dog is struggling or has a disorder of mental nature.

Some of the more common things that may be wrong with your dog include obsessive behaviors, lack of social interaction, or repetitive actions like circling and pacing. 

However, there is no one type of behavior that always indicates a mental disorder. Instead, there are several signs to look out for when trying to identify what might be wrong. With careful observation of our canine friends, it becomes easier to identify symptoms.

The following symptoms indicate that your pet may have a mental condition.

  • Excessive Licking Or Chewing (Separation Anxiety)
  • Obsessive Behaviors (Separation Anxiety Or Canine Cognitive Disorder)
  • Destructive Habits When Left Alone (Canine Separation Anxiety, Separation Anxiety, Or Canine Cognitive Disorders)
  • Panic Attacks (Canine Separation Anxiety And Other Types Of Mental Disorders).
  • Lack Of Social Interaction
  • Repetitive Actions Like Circling And Pacing
  • Self-mutilation (Canine Cognitive Disorder)
  • Aggression
  • Inappropriate Sexual Behavior (Canine Cognitive Disorder)

If you think that your pet might have a mental disorder, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so take them to the vet to see if anything can be done.

What Is Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in Dogs?

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is an umbrella term used to describe any number of conditions that affect a dog’s ability to learn new things. 

Although many different kinds of cognitive dysfunction exist, most cases involve a combination of three main symptoms: disorientation, lack of motivation, and memory loss. All of these can occur together or separately. Still, they usually appear as part of a larger pattern of neurological damage.

Dogs suffering from CDS typically lose interest in what they previously enjoyed, such as playing fetch or chasing balls. They also start acting strangely, like wandering aimlessly instead of following commands. 

Finally, they begin forgetting simple things, such as remembering where they left their toys or food bowls. As mentioned above, these changes don’t happen overnight — they take place gradually over months or even years. As a result, dogs with CDS sometimes get worse over time, while other times, they improve.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your own dog, he probably suffers from CDS.

Nevertheless, don’t panic if your pup seems to be acting strangely because this can happen to almost all dogs. 

Instead, talk to the vet about it. He’ll likely recommend a series of tests to determine precisely what’s causing the issue. Once you know what’s going on, you’ll be able to decide whether or not treatment is necessary.

How To Prevent Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in Dogs

The best way to prevent CDS is to keep your pet healthy overall. This means making sure he gets plenty of exercise, eats nutritious foods, and receives regular veterinary care. It also helps to make sure that he doesn’t have too much stress in his life. For example, if your dog spends long periods alone inside a crate, he could end up developing problems because of boredom.

In addition to preventing CDS, there are ways to treat it once it starts occurring. The first step is to find out which symptom your dog exhibits. Then, work closely with your veterinarian to figure out what might help them feel better. Some treatments include medication, physical therapy, and behavioral training.

Although CDS isn’t always fatal, it does cause serious health issues for affected animals. So if you suspect that your dog is experiencing any of these signs, contact your local animal hospital immediately. You’ll want to ensure that your furry friend gets proper medical attention before anything else happens.

Mentally Challenged Versus Mental Retardation: Are they the same?

Let’s understand the terms in general context first and change the wording: mentally challenged versus intellectual disability. The R-word is offensive, and we will avoid using it. 

A mentally challenged person has difficulty learning how to perform certain tasks due to brain injury or disease. An intellectual disability is caused by genetic factors. Both terms refer to people who cannot execute everyday activities without assistance.

However, intellectual disability in people is characterized by an IQ score that falls below 70. Individuals with milder forms of mental impairment may still function at normal levels despite having lower than average intelligence. 

How Can I Tell My Dog Has Mental Issues?

It’s important to note that just because your dog shows signs of having mental issues, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they need professional intervention. 

Many pets display unusual behaviors simply because they’ve been exposed to stressful situations. For example, some dogs become aggressive after living in an abusive home situation. Others exhibit strange habits like barking excessively or chewing on things. Still, others have trouble sleeping or eating properly.

If your pet seems unusually anxious or depressed, though, seek veterinary care right away. Your vet can conduct tests to determine whether your pooch suffers from a specific disorder. They will be able to diagnose your canine patient based on their symptoms as well as their overall condition. Once this information is available, your doctor should be able to recommend treatment options tailored to your particular case.

PTSD in Dogs: Symptoms & Causes

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that affects people who have experienced traumatic events such as war, rape, abuse, natural disasters, etc. It is also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While PTSD is common among humans, it is rare in dogs. Many breeds used in combat or police work may develop PTSD, such as Belgian Malinois. However, there are several symptoms that can indicate that your dog has PTSD. If you notice these symptoms in your dog, it is important to seek professional help immediately.

The most obvious sign of post-traumatic stress disorder in dogs is aggression towards owners, family members, or strangers. However, many dogs show no outward signs of distress until the later stages of the illness.

When a dog develops PTSD, it usually occurs within two weeks following a frightening experience. A scary event triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters into the bloodstream. These chemicals trigger the body’s fight/flight response, causing the heart rate to increase and blood pressure to drop. As a result, the adrenal glands produce more adrenaline and cortisol hormones. Adrenaline causes increased alertness, while cortisol makes the muscles tense. Both of these responses prepare the body for action.

If something feels abnormal, it is best to seek medical advice.

Final Thoughts

There’s nothing wrong with having a pet that doesn’t seem to grow up normally; however, if you want to avoid problems down the road, make sure that your dog isn’t getting too much attention right away.

You should give them plenty of space and lots of exercise, especially during those first few years. Also, try to keep them around people who aren’t overly affectionate towards them because excessive amounts of love could actually lead to behavioral issues.

I hope this article helped you gain insight into the mental issues that exist in the canine world.