Scientific research shows dogs are emotional beings and can suffer mental health challenges just like us. Mental health in veterinary circles is now being structured into a separate department of study. There are books written on this topic of mental illness in dogs by professionals such as Dr. Frank McMillan. His textbook is the first of its kind on the subject. He most recently is noted for working with the behavioral challenges of the 22 Victory dogs (Michael Vick’s case fighting pit bulls) at Best Friends Sanctuary, in Kanab, Utah.
One study shows a dog’s mental health suffers simply through domestication and living with humans. Since humans pamper and do everything for their dogs, problem-solving skills and intelligence is sacrificed.
Literally, dogs do not grow up in the human home. The result can manifest itself in emotional suffering, cognitive dysfunction, mental illness, emotional abuse and mental cruelty, according to Dr. Franklin McMillan’s book on this subject, “Mental Health and Well-being in Animals”.
A recent article by a professional Dr. Dodman whose research focuses on compulsive disorders in dogs said “For twenty years I have realized that the behavior problems I see in pet animals, especially dogs, are for the most part facsimiles of conditions psychologists and psychiatrists see in people.” Unfortunately, truly mentally ill dogs can show signs as early as five weeks old.
What are the mental illnesses in dogs?
- Depression – Dog depression symptoms are similar to those in humans. Dogs will become withdrawn, inactive, sleep and eating patterns can also change. Participation in activities the dog once enjoyed diminishes.
- Unprovoked acts of aggression – Unprovoked in and of itself is the definition of aggression, although there are many other reasons for aggression. The dog sees the world in a threatening way, which may or may not be able to be identified in regard to finding the core behavior. Often, fear is at the center of the behavior, or trauma, especially post traumatic disorder (PTSD), or over-the-top genetics. Whether nature or nurture, it is a cause of great concern and considered a mental illness.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Constant and repetitious behaviors, anything that looks abnormal could be an obsessive compulsive disorder from tail chasing, to back rolling, to eating rocks, pine cones, or snapping at invisible flies. Often, in working with challenging dogs OCD will crop up and even cause anxieties of interaction to the environment, to strangers and to other dogs. Dogs who may not want to go for a walk, or who compulsively eat sticks, or ground debris or stop periodically to chase their tail as stress increases might have OCD. Strange behaviors could qualify as OCD and can even indicate future health problems.
- Separation Anxiety or Panic Disorder – Separation anxiety can be compulsive in nature, as in a continuing panic disorder. Seeing many of these cases from mild to extreme, it is one of the most difficult to work through and cure. In the extreme case, separation anxiety is compulsively acted out each time the dog has any idea it could be left alone. Owners have described the behavior as “he freaks out”. It can be a real mental disorder and once health disorders are identified and treated, then a behavioral process can begin and be successful 87 to 95 percent of the time, according to ethologist Roger Abrantes in his book “Dogs Home Alone,” an excellent program for separation anxiety disorders.
- Extreme fear – Extreme fear is considered a phobia. As in humans, dogs can experience fear in extreme form. A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder and can cause health problems long-term. A traumatic event, such as a dog attack, or abuse by humans, can be considered a phobia, but by the same token there often is not a trigger. Extreme fear can manifest itself as a genetic factor and teaching the dog to cope with real life will become important for the rest of the dog’s life. If not genetic, the cause could be deemed subtle and hard to identify.
What are the signs of mental illness in dogs?
Imbalances in brain chemistry can cause mental illness in dogs. Whether it is due to continuous stress, health issues or genetic breeding, the signs of mental illness can range from mild to extreme. Even sound sensitivities that are over-the-top can be a sign of mental illness. Mental illness could be defined as behaviors an animal or human cannot control and therefore, it is critical to rule out health issues before attempting a behavioral process. Treatment may include medication to stabilize the condition and can go a long way in partnership with behavior treatment. Identifying the underlying cause is the key to the treatment of signs of mental illness in dogs.