Neurosis is defined as an emotional state of fixation—one in which there are no options. A neurotic pet cannot do the right thing in a given situation because he doesn’t know what is appropriate. Inconsistency rules in this pet’s household, and everybody tells him something different. One person encourages him to jump up, two others correct him for jumping, one person thinks it’s adorable when he steals underwear, another yells about the same infraction.
The pet in a neurotic household is in a no-win situation. Eventually, he stops trying to please and simply tries to defend himself against the next onslaught. He may become so depressed about his state of affairs that he withdraws completely from society, stops greeting people (even his owners) at the door, stops wagging his tail, eats too much or too little, and spends most of his time lying under the coffee table. His depression may manifest itself as aggressive behavior—he might snap if someone does something as simple as smile and step over him while he’s lying down on his mat. The reason for this behavior is that he’s been incorrectly handled for so long that he doesn’t even want attention. Rather, he does want it, but he doesn’t trust it, so he refuses it.
I remember one of my clients and their Basset Hound Stretch (yes that was his real name). Stretch was depressed and would panic when his owners would leave, he would actually sit on top of the house keys every time his owners put on their coats. When they finally managed to shove him aside, he would take the keys in his mouth and run off with them to hide under the bed. Clearly, Stretch was begging for attention.
The resolution of each of these neurotic, depressive tendencies is going to be different, because every animal and every household is different. However my basic rule of thumb is that the behavior must be changed slowly and gradually. The key is to admit that a change has occurred. The easy way out is to ignore the problem, but letting it alone only makes it worse. You have to find a starting point to begin a step-by-step program that will entice your pet back into the mainstream of life. In cases of severe depression, this may be difficult, because many normal alternatives, such as new toys and longer play periods, may do nothing to pique the pet’s interest. Once you find the starting point, however — be it another pet, a new wardrobe, a weekly trip, a new skill or a new food—the therapy must proceed steadily. Depressed pets need short periods of attention several times a day so that you can reestablish some form of relationship with them. Once they have begun to trust again, you can work more intensively with them. And don’t forget the hugs and kisses.