By Langley Cornwell
We enrolled our new dog in a group training class and the experience has been eye-opening. The class is filled with all kinds of dogs and all kinds of people. Some dogs catch on to the commands immediately, while others take a long time to learn what’s expected of them. One gal is having a hard time with her dog. She told the trainer that her dog acts crazy at home too, and she’s sure her dog is mentally ill. The comment stimulated a class discussion about whether animals can actually be mentally ill.
According to the University of Melbourne’s research department, the answer is yes. Dr. Gabrielle Carter, a faculty member of the University’s Veterinary Science department, specializes in animal behavior. Not only is Dr. Carter an expert in her field but, because this is a relatively new area of study, she is an advocate and is working hard to increase awareness of mental illness in pets.
Dr. Carter explains that even though there are tremendous dissimilarities in different mammals, their biological systems, brains and nervous systems share similarities. She reasons that if humans are known to have mental illness based in altered brain function, then it is sensible to expect the same holds true for other animals.
Mental illness in different animals manifests in different ways. For example, dogs may suffer from noise phobias, separation anxiety and aggression. Cats may compulsively over-groom themselves and spray inappropriately.
Through behavioral therapies and in this case, medication, Dr. Carter recently helped a dog that had inexplicably developed a fear of her own backyard. The dog wouldn’t go into the yard she had once loved. If she was forced into the yard, she would desperately try to escape. The dog’s mental issues got worse; she became acutely fearful of anything unfamiliar, developed generalized anxiety issues and extreme noise phobias. It got to the point where the dog spent most of her time cowering in her owner’s bedroom.
The owners had no idea why this dog’s behavior changed so radically. The only thing which made sense was that something traumatic happened to the dog when she was in her backyard and as a result, she developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Carter treated this dog by prescribing anti-anxiety medication and a behavior modification program. The dog’s owners worked to build positive emotional associations (CANIDAE dog treats can help in this area) with the back yard and with the other things that troubled the dog. After several months of work, the dog is getting back to her old self.
The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is another well-established organization devoted to animal mental health and behavioral welfare. In America, there are 57 board certified veterinary behaviorists who see a variety of species for mental health problems as well as behavioral issues.
Even though there is a growing understanding of mental illness in animals, many animals with mental disease go undiagnosed. Animal shelters are filled with dogs and cats that have been surrendered by their owners due to undiagnosed and untreated mental issues.
Here is a partial list of warning signs:
Lethargy, slowed movements
Change in appetite
Decrease in water consumption
Rapid weight gain or loss
Restless, anxious behavior
Howling: the dog will make noise, voicing their distress
Wreaking havoc: the dog will create a mess in your house when you are away
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Pulling out clumps of hair
Biting themselves, sometimes until they bleed
Repeated licking, sometimes in concentric circles
Armed with knowledge and love, these conditions are manageable. As science continues to unravel the relationship between the mind and the body, it is important that responsible pet owners monitor and remain aware of their pet’s behavior to ensure their physical as well as mental well-being.
Dog photo by Arkansas ShutterBug
Cat photo by Cliff Cooper
Read more articles by Langley Cornwell
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