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Around one in five people in the United States experience mental illness, making up 43.8 million in the country alone (NAMI). While we are still researching the intricacies and treatment of mental illnesses, we have come a long way in the past 50 years. Along with human mental illness, we are now taking a new look at animal mental illness, specifically among house pets, including dogs. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, your dog may have a mental illness as well.
Like people, dogs manifest mental illness in similar ways to humans. For instance, symptoms of depression in dogs can include changes in appetite, withdrawal from social life, and reduced amounts of activity (Cuteness). Dogs also develop anxiety and OCD. To soothe themselves, dogs can engage in obsessive behaviors and rituals (PetMD). Some of these behaviors can seem funny or eccentric such as dogs jumping after their own shadows or chasing their tails; however, it starts to become an issue when the dog cannot stop doing these behaviors, and they start to miss meal times or start to ignore family members. Other obsessive behaviors can include obsessive grooming such as licking the same spot on their body over and over or trying to tear fur out. Separation anxiety and the behaviors that come from it are interpreted by psychologists as the dog version of a panic attack, which is marked by extreme behaviors such as chewing at door frames, urination, and attempting to jump out of windows. Dog psychologists have also found that war dogs returning from the Middle East have shown signs of PTSD, where some dogs refuse to get into cars due to traumatic experiences in the past (TED).
Mental illnesses in dogs are not caused by a singular factor, just like with any human. One of the biggest deciding factors in chronic mental illnesses in dogs is genetics. Two dogs living in the same environment can come out with completely different mental states (TED). While traumatic experiences such as abuse or neglect can affect the mental health of a pet, a dog can develop a mental illness even in a good and nurturing home. Dogs may also develop symptoms of mental illness when going through a drastic change in their life, such as a new family member coming into their lives or moving to a new place (PetMD). With some extra social time and exercise, these symptoms will likely subside relatively quickly.
If you find that your dog has started exhibiting any of the above mentioned behaviors to a harmful excess, do not fret. There are multiple avenues of treatment for dogs. The first step is to go to your local veterinarian and explain the situation (PetMD). The veterinarian will do physical tests as well as try to get more information about your dog’s life such as how much social time it gets, how much it gets to go on walks, and any sort of event that may have helped precipitate this behavior. With your vet, you can work out a treatment plan that best suits your pet. Part of this treatment may likely come with medication. Most mood medications have a pet-specific formulation as well (TED). This is because most of these drugs were tested first with animals for both the health effects and behavioral effects. Medication is not always required for the long term. For instance, our first family dog, Fricka, was a Weimaraner who was born with intense separation anxiety. After the veterinarians tried to work with her through standard behavioral therapy, she was prescribed anxiety medication. She soon began to calm down and was eventually able to get off her medication.
Mental illness in dogs is a genuine issue, but it is also a very treatable condition. Like humans, dogs can exhibit anxiety, depression, and PTSD. However, just like humans, with personalized intervention, dogs can go on to lead healthy lives with their families during and after treatment. One of the best ways to spot mental illness in your or a loved one’s pet is to simply watch for extreme behaviors or changes in the dog’s current behaviors. It may seem cute at first that your dog is trying to chase its own shadow, but keep a close eye on it, for it may be sign of an obsessive compulsive behavior. As we learn more about mental illness and behavior, we can also apply what we know to help our wonderful furry friends.
Below is a great Ted Talk by Laurel Braitman on animals and mental illness. I strongly recommend checking this video out if you want to learn more.