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.
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?“)
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?