Can Animals Be Mentally Ill?

Welcome to our science-like new feature, "Hey, Science," in which we will have our most provocative scientific questions answered by real live scientists (or related experts). No question is too smart for us to tackle, theoretically speaking. This week, experts answer the question: Do animals get mental illnesses, just like humans? Or is your dog just dumb?

THE QUESTION: Animals act weird sometimes. There's even a flourishing industry of pet psychologists. But do animals actually become mentally ill, scientifically speaking, in the same way that humans do? Do we even know that? Or is this whole thing a bunch of speculative pseudoscience? Also, I gave my dog some of my Prozac, is that cool?

Michael Oglesbee, Professor and Chair, Department of Veterinary Biosciences, Ohio State University:

Interesting question. [Ed.: indeed] I am not aware of pet psychology as a recognized discipline in veterinary medicine. We focus on behaviors (the domain of behaviorists). There is no question that we encounter behavioral problems in domestic animal species, but to what degree that reflects mental illness per se (as a biochemical/neurobiological entity), versus a manifestation of suboptimal training and environment would be very difficult to tease apart. We start with what we know, and that is training and environment. Are there animal models of mental illness that are the focus of neurobiologists? You bet. For example, there is a rat model of schizophrenia. There are non-human primate models of schizophrenia, but to extrapolate from experimental models in rats and primates to dogs and cats would be a stretch.

Meghan E. Herron, veterinary behaviorist, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, Ohio State University:

We definitely see mental health issues in dogs and cats, not necessarily the same as in humans, but I do diagnose and treat dogs and cats for anxiety problems, phobias, compulsive disorders (similar to OCD), aggression, etc. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is a well established specialty in veterinary medicine. Currently there are 57 board certified veterinary behaviorists in the country. They see a variety of species for many behavior and mental health problems. The owners are an integral part of diagnosing and treating these problems as our patients cannot "speak" for themselves. That said often their behaviors and body language speak a thousand words. We sometimes prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications for animals, but I would not recommend owners give their pets their own medications as there are specific drugs we know are safe for animals, but some may be dangerous. The dosing is also quite different as is best left to a veterinarian to determine.

Christopher L. Mariani, veterinary neurologist, College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University:

I'd say the majority of the mental illnesses you mention do not occur in the majority of the animal kingdom; an exception might be primates, although this is a little bit outside of my area of expertise. Dogs and cats can have a variety of behavioral disorders, including things like compulsive or stereotypic disorders (often repetitive, abnormal behaviors), aggression, fearful behaviors, etc. For some of these disorders, certain human medications such as anti-anxiety drugs (e.g., valium, tricyclic antidepressants) or anti-depressants (fluoxetine [Prozac], clomipramine) are prescribed.....I certainly wouldn't advocate that people give these to their pets unless prescribed by a veterinarian, as there are specific contraindications and risks/adverse events associated with the use of these meds.

Hugh McClelland, emergency veterinarian, Affiliated Pet Emergency Services, Gainesville, FL, also we used to light off fireworks together when we were kids:

Can animals have mental illnesses, like people do?
The simple answer is yes. It's hard to say so with certainty because you can't ask the animal about his thoughts, feelings or perceptions. But you can observe his behavior. Abnormal behavior such as excessive aggression, fearfulness, or destruction can indicate anguish or distress. If the behavior is truly excessive and cannot be solely attributed to a medical condition, then the animal may have a mental disorder. Separation anxiety and thunderstorm phobia are well known mental disorders that affect animals.

Are all those "animal psychologists" real, or just pseudoscientists?
The title of Animal Psychologist is bogus, since the root word psyche refers to the totality of the human mind. A legit animal psychologist would, therefore, call himself an animal behaviorist to respect the difference between the animal and human mind. Do legit animal behaviorists exist? Absolutely, but any schmuck can legally call themselves an animal behaviorist or animal psychologist or whatever, so you can't go by the title. Instead look for the all-important letters after the person's name. The gold standard in the US is DVM (or VMD) followed by DACVB. This means the person has completed a degree in veterinary medicine followed by advanced clinical training in animal behavior, and is licensed and certified to diagnose and medically treat animal behavior problems. They can tell you what's wrong with your animal and get you the good drugs for it. The next best is a PhD in Applied Animal Behavior. These folks are formally educated in animal behavior (good), but can't prescribe medications (lame). And if the dude or chick or dudish-looking chick lacks any of these qualifications, beware, they may be selling snake oil enemas for all you know. And just to be clear, the terms "Animal Psychologist," "Animal Trainer," "Dog Whisperer," or "Pet Analyst-Therapist i.e. Pet Anal-rapist" in and of themselves do not necessarily mean that the person is licensed or certified or has had any formal education or training in diagnosis or treatment of animal behavior problems.

How much do vets really know about mental disorders in animals?
For your average vet such as myself, not too damn much. The average vet is too busy fixing broken bones, removing swallowed G.I. Joe action figures, and containing eruptions of urine/diarrhea/vomit/blood to delve deep into his patient's subconscious. As you can imagine, the animal mind is a freakishly hard thing to study, and I have great respect for legitimate Animal Behaviorists because of that. Have you ever tried to psychoanalyze your own pets? If not, I'll save you the trouble, here's how it would go down. First you skim read the Cliff's Notes version of a second-rate Sigmund Freud biography, so you feel totally prepared. Then you run into your first problem, the damn cat won't hold still long enough for you to initiate his hypnosis session. You finally corner the fidgety bastard, you start swinging the gold pocketwatch slowly back and forth in front of his nose while talking to him all calm and shit ("niiiiice kitty"), but suddenly he springs forth and violently assaults the swinging watch like it's a catnip-flavored tuna mouse. So, you give up and start feeding him an extra can of food per day until he's so fat the mental problems just seem less important. And it doesn't go any better with the dog. You call him into your comfortable office and ask him to hop up on the red couch. You start with some easy questions about his feelings, just common things like, "Why do you hump my leg, is it because I remind you of your bitch mom?" And, "I don't allow you to eat the cat's warm poop out of the litter box, how does that make you feel?" And the most perplexing question of all, "Whoooooooo's a good boy? Whoooooooo's a good boy?" You are making really good progress, and he starts really opening up to you about the trust issues with his father and the lack of emotional support he feels from you sometimes, until you remember he's not ALLOWED ON THE COUCH BAD DOG and whack him with a rolled-up newspaper until he submissively urinates and you feel bad so you give him a treat. So no, the average vet doesn't know much about mental disorders in animals. Thanks for asking.

THE VERDICT: Animals do suffer from mental illnesses. Caveats: 1) not necessarily the same mental illnesses as humans, and 2) diagnosis of animal mental illness is based on animal behavior, a trickier task than the diagnosis of mental illness in humans. If you want to get your pet's mental illness diagnosed, go to a certified veterinary behaviorist, not a bullshit "pet psychologist." And don't give your dog Prozac unless he's been a very good boy.

[Thanks to question-asker JRL and to all of our experts. Do you have a question for "Hey, Science?" Email me. Image by the talented Jim Cooke.]