Birds of a feather must flock together as Tai Tai, a moluccan cockatoo, learnt. Fraternising with his feathered friends saved him from self destruction four years ago.

The bird was so stressed and depressed about being left alone, it plucked its own feathers and screeched horribly until someone paid attention. This went on for years, until his owner Kathy Favati, 49, placed him in the care of Ms Pauline Chin, 57, in 2009.

Animals can get depressed too
Pet owner Kathy Favati and her cockatoo Tai Tai. PHOTOS: ST

At Ms Chin's pet shop-cum-animal shelter, E Pet Shop at Farmart Centre in Chua Chu Kang, Tai Tai was able to interact and socialise with other birds. In time, his feathers started growing back.

"Cockatoos are very lovable, very social. They need that social aspect of having other birds around or they are prone to depression," says Ms Favati, a gym owner and part-time English teacher.

Now back at home, eight-year-old Tai Tai is much happier and well-adjusted, with no signs of feather plucking.

Still, Ms Favati is doing what she can to prevent a relapse of the bird's depression. This includes playing Indian music for the bird, as Ms Chin did at the shelter she co-owned, and adopting two of Ms Chin's macaws, Tai Tai's closest friends at the shelter, to keep the bird company.

Pet experts say birds are not the only pets prone to psychological issues such as separation anxiety, grief and depression. Dogs, cats and even rabbits can experience these problems too.

When Ms Michelle Tan's rabbit Coco died of old age in January, she noticed an immediate change in her other rabbit, Panda.

She adopted the roughly 10-year-old pair from the House Rabbit Society Singapore eight years ago, after they were found abandoned at a coffee shop.

Extremely close throughout their lives, they liked to lie next to and groom each other.

"When we came back from the vet without Coco, something went wrong. Panda did not act like her normal, active self. She just went to the corner, would not interact and stopped eating, not even hay, her favourite food," says the 36-year- old IT programme manager.

Lack of appetite is especially worrisome in rabbits which are prone to gastrointestinal stasis. "They're meant to eat around the clock. If they stop eating, their system shuts down, gas fills up in the gut. It's very painful and they can die quite quickly," she says.

Ms Tan immediately took Panda to the vet. Though she was put on medication and Ms Tan force-fed her, Panda kept deteriorating, never regained her appetite and her kidneys started to fail.

Panda died around Chinese New Year, about a month after her companion.

"She was already old and frail. If she were younger, maybe I could have introduced another rabbit but I think she felt like there was nothing else to hold on to," says Ms Tan.

Animals can get depressed too

According to Dr Vanessa Lin, a 28-year-old vet at My Family Vet Clinic and Surgery in Bukit Batok East, animals can grieve and will display symptoms similar to humans when depressed. These include changes in appetite resulting in weight loss gain, a change in sleeping habits or becoming withdrawn and inactive.

If an animal becomes disinterested in activities or foods it used to enjoy, moves slower, wanders around aimlessly, sheds excessively and becomes aggressive, it may also be displaying signs of depression.

Treatment of depression varies by species but generally involves keeping the animal active, such as taking it on walks or engaging in its favourite activity. Giving it positive attention also helps, especially when the animal shows signs of activity or playfulness. Medicine is also available to regulate the symptoms of chronic depression, according to Dr Lin.

However, she warns that symptoms of depression may be due to illness. Animals, particularly dogs, can exhibit symptoms of depression when there is something physically wrong with them. It is therefore important to seek veterinary care if depression symptoms do not seem to be triggered by a specific event or if they persist.

Yet some experts, such as Action for Singapore Dogs president Ricky Yeo, 44, caution about personifying an animal's depression or grief.

In the case of canine depression, he feels that it is often a manifestation of insecurities rather than sadness.

"Our definition of depression and grief, and a dog's perspective of it is different.

"The 'depression' comes when the dog loses his sense of position within the pack - when he is removed from his familiar environment or pack or when the pack dynamics change, as with the loss or addition of a pack member. It is not sure of its position so it keeps very quiet so as not to draw attention to itself," says Mr Yeo.

Such was the case with Hope, a black mongrel left at the Mutts & Mittens animal shelter about two years ago.

According to Ms Jaclyn Liew, 37, manager for operations and adoptions at the shelter, Hope, who suffers from a painful, chronic skin condition, was not mingling with other dogs and seemed to be in her own world.

She says: "A normal dog would be very curious about the new environment. When people come to visit, it would go and greet them. But a dog that is grieving would be on its own, in a favourite corner, and hardly moves around."

So, in December last year, the Mutts & Mittens team decided to try daily aromatherapy treatments with body rubs of oils such as lavender and ylang ylang on Hope.

They also moved her into the shelter's air-conditioned office during the day.

Ms Liew says: "Perhaps it was the oils or the intensive physical contact, but Hope has changed. She's more interactive, she wags her tail. Whoever knew Hope then would be surprised by what she's like now."

Aromatherapy is also used at Petopia pet spa and boarding house to help their guests relax.

Spas and boarding houses, where pets are separated from their owners, are often a source of intense stress for pets.

Not so at Petopia. It provides spa treatments, such as massages and infra-red therapy and air-conditioned rooms.

Animals can get depressed too
Petopia director Richard Wee (above) and the dogs at the pet spa and boarding house

It also allows owners to bring their dog's favourite toys, food bowl and bed to make them feel more at home.

It is an extra touch pet owner Theresa Tan, 40, appreciates.

She travels with her husband and two young daughters a few times a year, sometimes for two or three weeks at a time, and struggled to find a place to house their 10-year-old miniature schnauzer Ralph.

She tried three different boarding houses and each time he would come home depressed and angry.

She says: "He would hide under the bed, refuse to eat, ignore our calls, and pee and poo around the house even though he was toilet trained."

Whenever the family would bring out the suitcases for their next trip, Ralph would howl and pee and poo in the suitcases.

"He was trying to stop us from leaving," she says.

Since sending Ralph to Petopia in 2011, Ms Tan has seen a change in Ralph. "Now he sniffs our luggage and does not bother. He wags his tail when he sees Raj, a staff member who picks up the dogs for Petopia, and he always comes back happy," she says.

She attributes Ralph's happiness to the extra care, comfort, and attention the dogs receive at Petopia.

She adds: "Dogs are very sensitive creatures, even if they cannot always voice their opinions".

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on March 9, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.