What Can We Learn from Pets with Mental Illnesses?

Posted by Samantha Bubar
girl hugging a dog

Animals can suffer from mental illness, too.

We may be closer to our pets than we think. Some animals, like humans, suffer from mental disorders. Conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive compulsive disorders can be found in pets, too.

This is Laurel Braitman, author of "Animal Madness: Inside Their Minds," which takes a scientific look at mental health in animals. Here is her TED talk on this debated issue of how animals react to their worlds.

Behaviors Explained

Odd behaviors aren't all a sign of mental illness. Pets can develop behaviors in an effort to soothe themselves, much like humans do. Babies suck their thumb to calm themselves, much like orphaned kittens suck their tail or paws.

Sometimes these behaviors become ritualized, much like obsessive compulsive disorder in humans. Humans and animals have also been known to suffer from trichotillomania, an obsession with plucking skin, hair, or feathers. That's where humans and animals, alike, can both benefit from psycho-pharmaceuticals to help manage their disorders.

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Nature vs. Nurture

These behaviors and disorders don't all stem from trauma. Two puppies from the same litter, raised in the exact same conditions, may end up entirely different dogs. One may develop, as mentioned by Braitman, a fear of the microwave beep, while the other may have no fears at all.

Each animal is an individual and it is important to know your pet well. While there are those that disagree with anthropomorphizing our pets, who knows them better than we do? We can only relate to them in the scope of our own feelings and emotions. Why not use the language and research around mental illness that we know to try to understand their world?

What We Learn from Pet Disorders

Pets learn just as much from us as we do from them. Braitman mentions a service dog, Gander, who works with a Vietnam veteran with a fear of heights. Gander soon developed a fear of heights from his owner's fear of jumping out of helicopters. This fear was acquired from watching his owner so carefully, and being with at heights with his owner and comforting him.

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Braitman and many other animal behaviorists are exploring the ways animals cope with their emotional states, even when these emotional states are acquired. While they may be experiencing different illnesses than the ones humans experience, our language of mental illness is the only way to describe what our pets may be feeling.

As Braitman concludes, sometimes the only way we can figure out what our pets are feeling is to anthropomorphize.

It is important to realize that while animals do so much for us, their health and well-being is much more than just making sure they have shelter, food, and water.

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What Can We Learn from Pets with Mental Illnesses?