We don’t fully understand what causes depression in humans, and we don’t fully understand how the medications we use to treat depression work. We do know that those medications work well in dogs just as they do in us. In dogs, however, they are more often used to treat fearfulness or aggression. We know that antidepressants generally take effect only after several weeks of constant use, and that they work much better if they are paired with behavior modification training in dogs or therapy in humans. And we actually do know enough about how they work to take a guess at why that's true.
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Depression in humans and fearfulness and aggression in dogs are related to stress: something in our lives that we can't control and can’t quite adjust to. In humans, that might be extended unemployment or long term caretaking for a sick family member. In dogs, it can be the inability to control who comes to visit your house (that terrifying mailman) or perhaps a lack of understanding of the big scary world (for undersocialized dogs).
Sometimes training or therapy aren’t enough to help us deal with these problems; some problems are too hard for our brains to cope with on their own. Antidepressants seem to help our brains adapt, however. A part of the brain deeply involved in learning and memory, the hippocampus, tends to be smaller in people who are depressed and tends to get larger again when they take antidepressants. This change may be associated with an improved ability to make new mental connections.
So that’s why antidepressants take weeks to take effect: that part of the brain is growing and changing, which doesn’t happen after just one pill. And that may also be why antidepressants work so much better in the context of training or therapy. It’s nice for your brain to be more able to learn new ways of coping with a difficult world, but the ability to learn is not the same as actual learning. To learn, you have to get out there and do: talk through your problems and find the way to feel differently about them and take new approaches to solutions if you’re a human, or get to practice new ways of interacting with the mailman if you’re a dog.
The take home message for dog owners? Don’t expect your dog to respond to antidepressants immediately; it will take a few weeks. And don’t expect your dog to respond without behavior modification. Antidepressants aren’t magic bullets and they won’t fix the problem on their own. But they will make it easier for all the training you do to take effect.