Oliver was an extremely dashing, handsome, charming and largely unstable male that I completely lost my heart to.
He was a Bernese mountain dog, and my ex-husband and I adopted him, and about six months in, we realized that he was a mess. He had such paralyzing separation anxiety that we couldn't leave him alone. Once, he jumped out of our third floor apartment. He ate fabric. He ate things, recyclables. He hunted flies that didn't exist. He suffered from hallucinations. He was diagnosed with a canine compulsive disorder and that's really just the tip of the iceberg.
But like with humans, sometimes it's six months in before you realize that the person that you love has some issues. (Laughter) And most of us do not take the person we're dating back to the bar where we met them or give them back to the friend that introduced us, or sign them back up on Match.com. (Laughter) We love them anyway, and we stick to it, and that is what I did with my dog. And I was a — I'd studied biology. I have a Ph.D. in history of science from MIT, and had you asked me 10 years ago if a dog I loved, or just dogs generally, had emotions, I would have said yes, but I'm not sure that I would have told you that they can also wind up with an anxiety disorder, a Prozac prescription and a therapist. But then, I fell in love, and I realized that they can, and actually trying to help my own dog overcome his panic and his anxiety, it just changed my life. It cracked open my world. And I spent the last seven years, actually, looking into this topic of mental illness in other animals. Can they be mentally ill like people, and if so, what does it mean about us? And what I discovered is that I do believe they can suffer from mental illness, and actually looking and trying to identify mental illness in them often helps us be better friends to them and also can help us better understand ourselves.
So let's talk about diagnosis for a minute. Many of us think that we can't know what another animal is thinking, and that is true, but any of you in relationships — at least this is my case — just because you ask someone that you're with or your parent or your child how they feel doesn't mean that they can tell you. They may not have words to explain what it is that they're feeling, and they may not know. It's actually a pretty recent phenomenon that we feel that we have to talk to someone to understand their emotional distress. Before the early 20th century, physicians often diagnosed emotional distress in their patients just by observation. It also turns out that thinking about mental illness in other animals isn't actually that much of a stretch. Most mental disorders in the United States are fear and anxiety disorders, and when you think about it, fear and anxiety are actually really extremely helpful animal emotions. Usually we feel fear and anxiety in situations that are dangerous, and once we feel them, we then are motivated to move away from whatever is dangerous. The problem is when we begin to feel fear and anxiety in situations that don't call for it. Mood disorders, too, may actually just be the unfortunate downside of being a feeling animal, and obsessive compulsive disorders also are often manifestations of a really healthy animal thing which is keeping yourself clean and groomed. This tips into the territory of mental illness when you do things like compulsively over-wash your hands or paws, or you develop a ritual that's so extreme that you can't sit down to a bowl of food unless you engage in that ritual.
So for humans, we have the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual," which is basically an atlas of the currently agreed-upon mental disorders. In other animals, we have YouTube. (Laughter) This is just one search I did for "OCD dog" but I encourage all of you to look at "OCD cat." You will be shocked by what you see. I'm going to show you just a couple examples. This is an example of shadow-chasing. I know, and it's funny and in some ways it's cute. The issue, though, is that dogs can develop compulsions like this that they then engage in all day. So they won't go for a walk, they won't hang out with their friends, they won't eat. They'll develop fixations like chasing their tails compulsively.
Here's an example of a cat named Gizmo. He looks like he's on a stakeout but he does this for many, many, many hours a day. He just sits there and he will paw and paw and paw at the screen. This is another example of what's considered a stereotypic behavior. This is a sun bear at the Oakland Zoo named Ting Ting. And if you just sort of happened upon this scene, you might think that Ting Ting is just playing with a stick, but Ting Ting does this all day, and if you pay close attention and if I showed you guys the full half-hour of this clip, you'd see that he does the exact same thing in the exact same order, and he spins the stick in the exact same way every time. Other super common behaviors that you may see, particularly in captive animals, are pacing stereotypies or swaying stereotypies, and actually, humans do this too, and in us, we'll sway, we'll move from side to side. Many of us do this, and sometimes it's an effort to soothe ourselves, and I think in other animals that is often the case too.
But it's not just stereotypic behaviors that other animals engage in. This is Gigi. She's a gorilla that lives at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. She actually has a Harvard psychiatrist, and she's been treated for a mood disorder among other things. Many animals develop mood disorders. Lots of creatures — this horse is just one example — develop self-destructive behaviors. They'll gnaw on things or do other things that may also soothe them, even if they're self-destructive, which could be considered similar to the ways that some humans cut themselves.
Plucking. Turns out, if you have fur or feathers or skin, you can pluck yourself compulsively, and some parrots actually have been studied to better understand trichotillomania, or compulsive plucking in humans, something that affects 20 million Americans right now. Lab rats pluck themselves too. In them, it's called barbering. Canine veterans of conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan are coming back with what's considered canine PTSD, and they're having a hard time reentering civilian life when they come back from deployments. They can be too scared to approach men with beards or to hop into cars.
I want to be careful and be clear, though. I do not think that canine PTSD is the same as human PTSD. But I also do not think that my PTSD is like your PTSD, or that my anxiety or that my sadness is like yours. We are all different. We also all have very different susceptibilities. So two dogs, raised in the same household, exposed to the very same things, one may develop, say, a debilitating fear of motorcycles, or a phobia of the beep of the microwave, and another one is going to be just fine.
So one thing that people ask me pretty frequently: Is this just an instance of humans driving other animals crazy? Or, is animal mental illness just a result of mistreatment or abuse? And it turns out we're actually so much more complicated than that.
So one great thing that has happened to me is recently I published a book on this, and every day now that I open my email or when I go to a reading or even when I go to a cocktail party, people tell me their stories of the animals that they have met. And recently, I did a reading in California, and a woman raised her hand after the talk and she said, "Dr. Braitman, I think my cat has PTSD."
And I said, "Well, why? Tell me a little bit about it."
So, Ping is her cat. She was a rescue, and she used to live with an elderly man, and one day the man was vacuuming and he suffered a heart attack, and he died. A week later, Ping was discovered in the apartment alongside the body of her owner, and the vacuum had been running the entire time. For many months, up to I think two years after that incident, she was so scared she couldn't be in the house when anyone was cleaning. She was quite literally a scaredy cat. She would hide in the closet. She was un-self-confident and shaky, but with the loving support of her family, a lot of a time, and their patience, now, three years later, she's actually a happy, confident cat.
Another story of trauma and recovery that I came across was actually a few years ago. I was in Thailand to do some research. I met a monkey named Boonlua, and when Boonlua was a baby, he was attacked by a pack of dogs, and they ripped off both of his legs and one arm, and Boonlua dragged himself to a monastery, where the monks took him in. They called in a veterinarian, who treated his wounds. Eventually, Boonlua wound up at an elephant facility, and the keepers really decided to take him under their wing, and they figured out what he liked, which, it turned out, was mint Mentos and Rhinoceros beetles and eggs. But they worried, because he was social, that he was lonely, and they didn't want to put him in with another monkey, because they thought with just one arm, he wouldn't be able to defend himself or even play. And so they gave him a rabbit, and Boonlua was immediately a different monkey. He was extremely happy to be with this rabbit. They groomed each other, they become close friends, and then the rabbit had bunnies, and Boonlua was even happier than he was before, and it had in a way given him a reason to wake up in the morning, and in fact it gave him such a reason to wake up that he decided not to sleep. He became extremely protective of these bunnies, and he stopped sleeping, and he would sort of nod off while trying to take care of them. In fact, he was so protective and so affectionate with these babies that the sanctuary eventually had to take them away from him because he was so protective, he was worried that their mother might hurt them. So after they were taken away, the sanctuary staff worried that he would fall into a depression, and so to avoid that, they gave him another rabbit friend. (Laughter) My official opinion is that he does not look depressed. (Laughter)
So one thing that I would really like people to feel is that you really should feel empowered to make some assumptions about the creatures that you know well. So when it comes to your dog or your cat or maybe your one-armed monkey that you happen to know, if you think that they are traumatized or depressed, you're probably right. This is extremely anthropomorphic, or the assignation of human characteristics onto non-human animals or things. I don't think, though, that that's a problem. I don't think that we can not anthropomorphize. It's not as if you can take your human brain out of your head and put it in a jar and then use it to think about another animal thinking. We will always be one animal wondering about the emotional experience of another animal.
So then the choice becomes, how do you anthropomorphize well? Or do you anthropomorphize poorly? And anthropomorphizing poorly is all too common. (Laughter) It may include dressing your corgis up and throwing them a wedding, or getting too close to exotic wildlife because you believe that you had a spiritual connection. There's all manner of things. Anthropomorphizing well, however, I believe is based on accepting our animal similarities with other species and using them to make assumptions that are informed about other animals' minds and experiences, and there's actually an entire industry that is in some ways based on anthropomorphizing well, and that is the psychopharmaceutical industry.
One in five Americans is currently taking a psychopharmaceutical drug, from the antidepressants and antianxiety medications to the antipsychotics. It turns out that we owe this entire psychopharmaceutical arsenal to other animals. These drugs were tested in non-human animals first, and not just for toxicity but for behavioral effects. The very popular antipsychotic Thorazine first relaxed rats before it relaxed people. The antianxiety medication Librium was given to cats selected for their meanness in the 1950s and made them into peaceable felines. And even antidepressants were first tested in rabbits.
Today, however, we are not just giving these drugs to other animals as test subjects, but they're giving them these drugs as patients, both in ethical and much less ethical ways. SeaWorld gives mother orcas antianxiety medications when their calves are taken away. Many zoo gorillas have been given antipsychotics and antianxiety medications. But dogs like my own Oliver are given antidepressants and some antianxiety medications to keep them from jumping out of buildings or jumping into traffic. Just recently, actually, a study came out in "Science" that showed that even crawdads responded to antianxiety medication. It made them braver, less skittish, and more likely to explore their environment.
It's hard to know how many animals are on these drugs, but I can tell you that the animal pharmaceutical industry is immense and growing, from seven billion dollars in 2011 to a projected 9.25 billion by the year 2015.
Some animals are on these drugs indefinitely. Others, like one bonobo who lives in Milwaukee at the zoo there was on them until he started to save his Paxil prescription and then distribute it among the other bonobos. (Laughter) (Applause)
More than psychopharmaceuticals, though, there are many, many, many other therapeutic interventions that help other creatures. And here is a place where I think actually that veterinary medicine can teach something to human medicine, which is, if you take your dog, who is, say, compulsively chasing his tail, into the veterinary behaviorist, their first action isn't to reach for the prescription pad; it's to ask you about your dog's life. They want to know how often your dog gets outside. They want to know how much exercise your dog is getting. They want to know how much social time with other dogs and other humans. They want to talk to you about what sorts of therapies, largely behavior therapies, you've tried with that animal. Those are the things that often tend to help the most, especially when combined with psychopharmaceuticals.
The thing, though, I believe, that helps the most, particularly with social animals, is time with other social animals. In many ways, I feel like I became a service animal to my own dog, and I have seen parrots do it for people and people do it for parrots and dogs do it for elephants and elephants do it for other elephants. I don't know about you; I get a lot of Internet forwards of unlikely animal friendships. I also think it's a huge part of Facebook, the monkey that adopts the cat or the great dane who adopted the orphaned fawn, or the cow that makes friends with the pig, and had you asked me eight, nine years ago, about these, I would have told you that they were hopelessly sentimental and maybe too anthropomorphic in the wrong way and maybe even staged, and what I can tell you now is that there is actually something to this. This is legit. In fact, some interesting studies have pointed to oxytocin levels, which are a kind of bonding hormone that we release when we're having sex or nursing or around someone that we care for extremely, oxytocin levels raising in both humans and dogs who care about each other or who enjoy each other's company, and beyond that, other studies show that oxytocin raised even in other pairs of animals, so, say, in goats and dogs who were friends and played with each other, their levels spiked afterwards.
I have a friend who really showed me that mental health is in fact a two-way street. His name is Lonnie Hodge, and he's a veteran of Vietnam. When he returned, he started working with survivors of genocide and a lot of people who had gone through war trauma. And he had PTSD and also a fear of heights, because in Vietnam, he had been rappelling backwards out of helicopters over the skids, and he was givena service dog named Gander, a labradoodle, to help him with PTSD and his fear of heights. This is them actually on the first day that they met, which is amazing, and since then, they've spent a lot of time together visiting with other veterans suffering from similar issues. But what's so interesting to me about Lonnie and Gander's relationship is about a few months in, Gander actually developed a fear of heights, probably because he was watching Lonnie so closely. What's pretty great about this, though, is that he's still a fantastic service dog, because now, when they're both at a great height, Lonnie is so concerned with Gander's well-being that he forgets to be scared of the heights himself.
Since I've spent so much time with these stories, digging into archives, I literally spent years doing this research, and it's changed me. I no longer look at animals at the species level. I look at them as individuals, and I think about them as creatures with their own individual weather systems guiding their behavior and informing how they respond to the world. And I really believe that this has made me a more curious and a more empathetic person, both to the animals that share my bed and occasionally wind up on my plate, but also to the people that I know who are suffering from anxiety and from phobias and all manner of other things, and I really do believe that even though you can't know exactly what's going on in the mind of a pig or your pug or your partner, that that shouldn't stop you from empathizing with them. The best thing that we could do for our loved ones is, perhaps, to anthropomorphize them.
Charles Darwin's father once told him that everybody could lose their mind at some point. Thankfully, we can often find them again, but only with each other's help.
Behind those funny animal videos, sometimes, are oddly human-like problems. Laurel Braitman studies non-human animals who exhibit signs of mental health issues — from compulsive bears to self-destructive rats to monkeys with unlikely friends. Braitman asks what we as humans can learn from watching animals cope with depression, sadness and other all-too-human problems.
Science historian Laurel Braitman is the author of Animal Madness, a book that takes a close look at our non-human friends and their mental anxieties.
Science historian Laurel Braitman is the author of Animal Madness, a book that takes a close look at our non-human friends and their mental anxieties.