Unfortunately, animals can’t communicate with us in our own language, but they do have ways to communicate well, as anyone with a pet knows.
The symptoms of emotional upset often parallel those of some physical ailments. The veterinary approach is generally that, if a companion animal shows signs of “sadness,” it is considered a medical concern until proven otherwise. If the physical exam and, in some cases, screening tests are unremarkable, and the history indicates a stressful, sad or traumatic event that might have impacted the animal, then a vet will address it as a behavioural disorder. Some conditions could be treated with changing the environment, training and in some cases psychiatric medication.
Things to watch out for are changes in behaviour, like increased or decreased eating or drinking, or changes in sleep patterns. Poor grooming or uncharacteristic toilet habits are other symptoms. Cats that are scratching furniture or other objects may be trying to relieve stress. Dogs may become withdrawn or inactive.
In many cases, incidental sadness or depression in a pet can be treated by encouraging them back to their regular routine. For a dog, try to keep a regular walking routine and try to engage her in the things that she usually enjoys. One thing to be cautious about is not to over-respond treats in an effort to lift their spirit. This could reinforce their behaviour by leading them to think that you want them to behave in ways that suggest emotional upset.
If any of these symptoms continue for a few days or worsen, you should consult a veterinarian.
Listen for vocalizations. A cat, for instance, might make unhappy noises like a low pitched howls. They can also send confusing messages by purring, which would seem to suggest everything is okay, but cats also do this sometimes to comfort themselves when they are not feeling well. Again, watch for changes in behaviour like a quiet animal suddenly becoming vocal or vocal animal suddenly becoming quiet.
Body language can tell you a lot as well. The way a pet carries itself, holds their tail, or positions its head can suggest a number of things including sadness.
The first thing to determine is whether the symptoms indicate something physical or emotional. If your veterinarian rules out obvious signs of physical illness or injury, ask about the possibility of emotional discomfort. The vet may suggest doing more of what your pet enjoys most, possibly increasing social interactions with other animals or even considering a pharmaceutical remedy.