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Q&A: What Animal Mental Illness Tells Us About Humans

By Kristi Myllenbeck 

The more we know about animal minds, the more we realize how similar they are to ours—and that’s just as true of animals’ mental illnesses.

Increasingly, scientists are discovering that dogscats, and other animals suffer from anxiety, dementia, and even phobias.

Cesar Millan, the 'dog whisperer,' plays with dogs
Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer,” interacts with canines. Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic Creative

Laurel Braitman’s new Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves offers insight into how different creatures can be afflicted with myriad mental and emotional disorders.

For example, Asian elephants in Thailand show emotional trauma after being mistreated and pets can develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because of stress in their families, according to the book, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on June 9.

We talked to Braitman, who recently received her Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to hear more about her book.

What caused you to choose the subject of animal mental illness?

This book actually began with my own dog, who is a rescue. Six months in, his separation anxiety began to manifest. He could barely be left alone. It sort of culminated into him jumping out of our window.

We went to the vet hospital and I asked them what we should do. They said, ‘Well, you should move to a first-floor apartment,’ and they gave us a prescription for Valium. I was shocked. But sometimes the best stories are the ones that you sort of stumble into. (See “Dog and Human Genomes Evolved Together.”)

How did you go about conducting your research?

I started doing literature searches about mental illness in animals, insanity, and madness. There was actually very little on the subject. Because there is no such thing, really, as the field of mental illness in animals, I had to go to a bunch of different places—the behavioral sciences, the animal pharmaceutical industry, early research and experiments on animals, and even Pavlov’s research on his own dogs. (Related: “Q&A: What Can Dog Brains Tell Us About Humans?“)

02 ANIMAL MADNESS

What I found is that there were a lot of parallel ideas. People in different fields were asking similar questions: How smart are we? What heals us? And what can we learn from each other?

What similarities did you discover between human and animal mental illness?

The most common mental illnesses in the United States are various manifestations of fear and anxiety disorders. When you think about it, fear and anxiety are feelings we share with most of the animal kingdom because they’re beneficial to us. [For instance, being afraid of a lion helps you escape becoming dinner.] The problem is when you begin to feel fear inappropriately.

Another manifestation among animals and humans is OCD behavior, most often OCD-grooming behaviors. It’s also common for animals to react when there is a change in the family—a move, a divorce, or even a new baby. (See “OCD Dogs, People Have Similar Brains; Is Your Dog OCD?”)

Humans have therapists, but how is animal mental health addressed?

It depends on the animal. A free-living orca [killer whale] with panic disorder is probably never going to be diagnosed or end up on medication. Animals tend to get diagnosed when it is really extreme—when they won’t stop licking their tail so they won’t stop to eat, or they’re so obsessed with chasing shadows that they won’t take a walk. Animal mental illness is more likely to be diagnosed by an animal behaviorist rather than a veterinarian.

Are there repercussions in animals if mental illness is left unaddressed?

Thailand has over 2,000 working elephants. Many of them were used in the logging industry. When the logging industry was deemed illegal in the ’90s, thousands of these elephants were put out of work. Some of these elephants have extreme emotional problems. They can have trauma disorders, and emotionally distraught elephants are a public health hazard. (See a photo gallery of animals that are smarter than you think.)

When it comes to pets, the danger of not helping them through whatever is bothering them is usually a question of life or death. Most animals that wind up at shelters are there because they have behavioral problems.

What should readers take away from your book?

I hope, generally, that people’s view of other animals becomes just a tiny bit more complicated. After writing this book, I look at pigeons differently, I look at wombats differently, I look at gorillas differently, I look at dogs differently.

I think that we’re very used to thinking of ourselves as individuals, but I think we should actually be extending those capacities of individuality to those animals with which we share the planet. I think that we can also learn how to treat ourselves when we are emotional and stressed by interacting with these other creatures. Often what helps them helps us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Readers, tell us: Has your pet experienced mental illness?

Comments

  1. Cats2
    NJ, USA
    June 15, 10:53 pm

    My holistic veterinarian had been extraordinarily helpful with my mother-in-law’s Siamese cat (described in my previous post). Providing aromatherapy, calming medicine (but not valium) and massage therapy. The vet was so incredible. My husband and brother-in-law had considered putting the cat to sleep (euthanasia) as the cat had seemed unadoptable and unsocializable. I’m reasonably certain that probably many animals in the wild and in captivity remain highly traumatized either by humans or by circumstance (watching young get eaten or stolen or tortured by another creature, Predator or prey. Starvation, freezing, heat stroke, etc).

  2. Cats2
    New Jersey, United States of America
    June 15, 10:46 pm

    It is absolutely true that animals suffer mental health issues. Some examples: my mother-in-law was very ill with a heart condition and in and out of the hospital frequently. When an inpatient, she was there for a week or more at a time. Her only pet, a Siamese cat, would bite off its’ own fur repeatedly until it had lesions on the skin. When she was back in the house, the cat remained calm and stopped the fur biting/pulling behavior. When she died, I tried to take the cat to live with me. For 4 months there was only extreme growling, hissing, snarling, hiding, scratching, and mournful meows. There was no getting along with my other cats despite the Siamese having a bedroom for herself and the other cats locked out to keep her calm. When the cats got together there was only war. Eventually, I found someone to adopt her – she lived for a long time with a single woman in a lovely apartment with a bay window and no other pets. She got along great with her new owner. When the new owner’s parent became ill, she moved to the farm there and took the Siamese cat with her. Eventually, the cat learned to be sociable with all the other animals. She was well-loved and died peacefully in her old age.

    Another example: a rabbit died of a heart attack due to fear of other animals.

    A former client had an Amazon parrot as a pet for 25 years along with her dog and cats. All the animals got along very well with each other. When the elderly woman was dying, the dog would pace the floor and sometimes just lie near her bed, her head forlornly on the floor. The cats would take turns lying on her bed along the woman’s body length – if anything happened – say a prolonged cough, the cats would come get a human in the house by meowing, head pushing, pawing, etc. The parrot would make these incredibly loud shrieking squawks, wildly flap its’ wings, pace back and forth and refuse food.

    The animal world – including that of humans – can be quite stressful. Eat or be eaten. Find protection or become vulnerable to attack or fatigue or starvation or…

  3. Sophie
    Athens,Greece
    June 15, 3:24 pm

    I think it all boils down to our anthropomorphism,our tendency to look at every living creature as if it were human and of course the closest ones are our pets.Why can’t we accept that animals are different from humans and still respect them for that?

  4. FredFlintstone
    June 14, 8:58 pm

    The ‘earth shattering news’ that ‘confirms’ animals have emotion of the she donkey and a goat, is well known among Thoroughbred breeders who used to, somewhat routinely, stall a goat with the horse to calm the horse–but the direct side effect of the goat/horse stalling arrangement is the horse becomes so dependent upon the goat that it will pine away on separation. This is not news. This is re-invention of the wheel. It is also a quick fix in the Arab horse breeding industry.

  5. Tony the veterinarian
    Sydney
    June 10, 4:23 am

    There is nothing mentioned in this book that was not covered in far more detail during my study of Animal Behaviour in my veterinary degree. The fallacy that veterinarians are not aware or equipped to treat these disorders is perpetuated in order to fool people on spending all their money with woefully trained animal behaviouralists.
    Go to any vet who has graduated in the last 20 years and they will be able to explain the pathophysiology of the disorders, treatments available (both behavioural modification and veterinary specific medications). If the situation is very complex there are even veterinary specialists in Animal Behaviour with the same level of expertise in the field as your psychiatrist has in human mental illness.
    If your vet prescribes just Valium and tells you to move house ask for a referral to a specialist. You will spend far less and receive far more than the pseudo vets running around calling themselves behaviouralists.

  6. DeLinda
    June 9, 8:37 pm

    I shied away from even reading this article because you’ve topped it with a picture of someone who doesn’t even work with modern behavioral science in dog training.

    I skimmed down to read parts of the article, and was surprised that it promotes science and not someone’s “idea” of how animals think and feel.

    If NatGeo can just get it ALL together, and stop glorifying people like Cesar Millan, I’m more likely to read more articles on this page, and watch the channel.

  7. A Sellares
    Earth
    June 9, 8:36 pm

    I’ve had dogs all my life (about 12) different breeds, sizes and mixed they have all been loved but most important they are treated like dogs not humans. They have to be well fed and exercised an live in a clean place, never lacking affection and love. And even MORE important they have to have discipline and they have to behave like dogs and know their place in the “pack”. Your have Cesar Milan’s photo at the head of your article. He is called the dog whisperer not because he can actually talk to dogs or uses “magic” he is an expert coexisting with dogs (and cats sometimes), he can tell us that if a dog misbehaves or is hysterical or has phobias, aggressiveness – 99% of the time it’s the humans fault not the dog and definitely not because the dog has a mental disability. ALL the dogs we’ve had in our family all these years NONE had any kind of mental disorder, phobias, acted crazy or aggressive. I am sure they have been very happy healthy dogs. Dogs do grieve and can feel sadness, scared or anxiety but they also get over it very fast because they live in the present and in the moment and it’s up to us humans to help them adjust to any changes

  8. Kat
    Canada
    June 9, 8:02 pm

    As someone who works at rehabilitating rescued animals, I see many on a daily basis with ptsd, debilitating anxiety, and depression.

  9. Smodaig
    UK
    June 9, 7:27 pm

    What do you mean by “extending those capacities of individuality to those animals”?

  10. A. Vernet
    Monterrey Mexico
    June 9, 6:33 pm

    If a dog, cat, elephant that coexists with humans becomes unstable, anxious or aggressive its probably due to the humans. Humans unbalance the equilibrium of nature. We don’t need to look any further. Animals that live in the wild and don’t coexist with humans DO NOT need “shrinks”

  11. I Mencos
    San Pedro, NL. Mexico
    June 9, 6:15 pm

    I’ve had dogs all my life (about 12) different breeds, sizes and mixed they have all been loved but most important they are treated like dogs not humans. They have to be well fed and exercised an live in a clean place, never lacking affection and love. And even MORE important they have to have discipline and they have to behave like dogs and know their place in the “pack”. Your have Cesar Milan’s photo at the head of your article. He is called the dog whisperer not because he can actually talk to dogs or uses “magic” he is an expert coexisting with dogs (and cats sometimes), he can tell us that if a dog misbehaves or is hysterical or has phobias, aggressiveness – 99% of the time it’s the humans fault not the dog and definitely not because the dog has a mental disability. ALL the dogs we’ve had in our family all these years NONE had any kind of mental disorder, phobias, acted crazy or aggressive. I am sure they have been very happy healthy dogs. Dogs do grieve and can feel sadness, scared or anxiety but they also get over it very fast because they live in the present and in the moment and it’s up to us humans to help them adjust to any changes. We’ve also had cats, rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish none ever got crazy. Dogs and animals in general are the ones who should be “scared” of humans.

  12. CureHouse
    CA
    June 9, 12:23 pm

    I need to comment on the wild animals not having mental illness statement – we all have survival instincts. And yes we can overcome trauma but to say wild animals don’t have at least some level of mental coercion/Illness thrust upon them by their environment is a little short sighted. Their choices may just be more limited. They must survive. Why do cats go feral? I would say because at some level they are traumatized by their environment and a purr survival instinct kicks in. Mental illness? Survival instinct? Fear? Our world is truly amazing! And I would never sell the creatures we share it with short. Very interesting stuff. Thanks

  13. Frank Blankenship
    Gainesville, FL
    June 9, 9:38 am

    Wild animals don’t get “mental illness”. Wild animals get dinner.

  14. Lando maine
    Here and there
    June 9, 8:13 am

    I have always treated animals with respect for this reason, this being confirmed is no surprise to me. I treat animals as if they were humans, for we ourselves are animals.

  15. Ima Ryma
    June 9, 4:27 am

    Depressed, I went to see a shrink.
    And on his couch I bared my soul.
    Could he pull me back from the brink
    Of jumping into a black hole?
    Did my mother abandon me,
    Filling me with issues of trust?
    Did I feel a nonentity,
    Making me overeat and lust?
    But the shrink just sat there and stared,
    Inattentive to my squealed cries,
    Not taking notes on oinks I bared.
    I saw hog hunger in his eyes.

    I had to fire that shrink cuz, damn,
    He only saw me as a ham.

  16. Alexis Schulman
    Kapolei, Hawaii
    June 9, 4:24 am

    As a Veterinarian I diagnose and treat anxiety and other mental diseases in cats, dogs and birds on a regular basis. The science, knowledge, training concerning problems in animal behavioral problems has been recognized in Veterinary Medicine for decades as well as medical therapies and behavioral modification techniques. For more specialized treatments we count on Veterinary Behaviorists to further help our patients. Veterinary Medicine has been plagued by pseudo experts that presume to know our field to our patients detriment and we are ultimately left to pick up the pieces.

  17. Mary Stetzel
    United States
    June 9, 4:08 am

    When my late husband passed away in 2006, our Maltese was so distraught that she licked all of the fur off of the left side of her body, and our mini dachshund started urinating on our bed. I had to keep a tee shirt on the Maltese for over six months to prevent the OCD licking behavior. The other dog went to work with me for months. She was content to be in a crate, as long as she could see me. Eventually, both of the dogs adjusted to life without him, but the first year was very difficult for all of us.

  18. Lucy
    United States
    June 8, 11:37 pm

    I even remember when I had three red-eared sliders (aquatic turtles), when the oldest one died the other two were completely traumatized. I remember finding him floating in the water and I picked him up and put him on a rock to see if he was really dead. Then one of the other turtles swam up to the rock and reached her neck out, and pulled back in fear when she realized he was dead. Later I found them huddled in a corner holding each other. Perhaps I’m just guilty of anthropomorphizing them, but I really believe they were deeply upset by his death, especially since I could tell they seemed to look up to him.

  19. Beth
    Los Angeles
    June 8, 11:15 pm

    Yes- there are a lot of similarities of animals with humans. More intelligence is being discovered every day and shared physical diseases as well. I would urge your readers to consult a veterinary behaviorist-there are SPECIALISTS with additional graduate credentials and board certification that can diagnose and help treat problem behaviors with behavioral modification and appropriate medication. http://www.dacvb.org/resources/find/
    The veterinarian mentioned in the article is a general practitioner and not qualified in this specialty area.

  20. Gayle Dauverd
    USA
    June 8, 10:33 pm

    I think it is very naive and self-absorbed for humans to think that animals wouldn’t have mental illnesses. People who have spent their entire lives around many, many animals can often tell you stories about animals who manifested mental illnesses much more serious than OCD and anxiety; those are run of the mill stuff for the most part. I wish researchers would get out of their labs and have some real life experiences with real animals in their own environments; the research they do in labs seems to usually produce results that animal people have known about forever and take for granted. Such a waste of resources when there are things that could use some money thrown at them to learn more about. Nothing personal to the author but there is nothing new to anyone who has had lots of dogs about what she is saying; it sounds like she is a dog newbie to be surprised by her dog having anxiety.

  21. susan ballarini
    United States
    June 8, 9:37 pm

    If you want to study animal mental illness go see the chimpanzees that were used in laboratory experiments for decades. Or a mother dog who was forced to watch her pup used as a bait dog, or an elephant chained and beaten daily, or the lab rat or guinea pig who lives in constant fear of the next hideous experiment to be performed on her. Some have been known to have heart attacks when the researchers came in the room. What about the dairy cow who is forced to endure the loss of her newborn calf REPEATEDLY so that humans can have her milk? When animals are used as commodities, the depravity of humankind is endless. Of course animals suffer the same as we do, why wouldn’t they?

  22. Valerie Brown
    United States
    June 8, 7:42 pm

    My significant other died a few months ago and both of my dogs & I are grieving. We were moved from our home into my son’s home. My dogs & I are still adjusting. The dogs still manifest signs of grief & depression. They both seem to suffer lots of anxiety when I leave for any length of time.

  23. Charlie Barker
    Australia
    June 8, 7:40 pm

    Great pic if serving as an example of compounding anxiety, fear and phobias for many dogs. I dread the thought of anyone treating me in a similar fashion if I was anxious or fearful -Telling me I wasn’t scared, just dominant and stubborn, perhaps giving me a kick, throwing me to the ground, and holding me down whilst choking me. Or maybe dragging me towards the thing I am scared of and when I act scared, hanging me by my neck with a chain and swinging me around until I ‘stop being scared’.

  24. Marina Paez
    Madrid
    June 8, 6:22 pm

    I’ve got to say that maybe Chloe is my best friend. She is a crossbreeding between a fox terrier and a Norfolk terrier, who knows…. I have realized she also loves me, I mean she clearly prefers to stay with me at home… My family, as the article says, can cause some stress from which I think I am suffering the consequences. Probably I am the most quiet member of my family. As it is hard for me to overcome and keep on working after a discussion, I try to avoid all these no-sense arguments, and keep calm. I am sure Chloe prefers to stay with me for the same reason, to avoid this stress, so she uses to hide in my bedroom.

  25. Mrs. Mona
    Canada
    June 8, 6:11 pm

    We used to argue a lot. My husband and I. Our kids were, we thought, used with it. We got a dog, a beautiful and kind Yorkshire terrier. Every fight he use now to shiver and hide. I never imagine thet our regular behavior has such an impact on people & ANimals around us. ♡♥ We do not fight anymore because this little cute dog tought us to BEHAVE ♡♥ our kids are extremely grateful

  26. Fenja Tsami
    Athens, Greece
    June 8, 5:59 pm

    My female bull terrier dog Porcia (7 y.old) is really stressed during some periods, I think that it becomes worse whenever I’m stressed too… She is afraid of loud noises and water. Some years ago I had a major depressive episode andduring that time Porkia had sleep disorders: she was waking up suddenly, without reason, and wanted to bite me or anyone else. After some seconds she realized that there was no enemy (!) and looked really sad and embarrassed… Fortunately she is ok now!

  27. Claudio
    Spain
    June 8, 5:45 pm

    Magnificent both article and book. I am glad people are getting more and more interested in animals’ states of mental health. I have four dogs and I could give you examples on how they react in different emotional situations. Without my dogs, on the other hand, would perhaps be quite miserable and meaningless!! Thank you.

  28. CureHouse
    Santa Cruz, CA
    June 8, 11:41 am

    Haven’t we all experienced emotional trauma and some level of mental illness? I am a believer that until animals are brought into our ethical circle the planet and all its living creatures will suffer. So please grant us the compassion to see our ailing planet to a better place and the intelligence to see the ripples of every step we take.

  29. Becky
    home
    June 7, 9:57 pm

    Our bulldog has been very protective to the point of attacking visiting dogs now we worry for everyone safety

  30. Becky
    home
    June 7, 9:54 pm

    We have a bulldog that seems to have gone local how do we assure safety of visiting family other then caging ?