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  • Dan Connors

Do animals get depressed? A review of Animal Madness

Updated: May 20, 2022

Kaavan, called the loneliest and saddest elephant in the world, from a Pakistan zoo.

Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves

Laurel Braitman- 2014

Do animals have emotional breakdowns? Do they have the same mental frailties and neuroses as humans? They can't talk to us, but their behavior can tell us plenty about their emotional states as well as our own. This wonderful book covers the history of animal mental illness and how it integrates with human mental health over the last few centuries.

Before Charles Darwin came on the scene, we assumed that humans were special, and that our experiences were way above those of the lowly animal kingdom. Darwin's theory of evolution dashed that special perch, and now scientists realize that animal brains and minds work much the same as human ones, if not quite as powerful and complex. Animals think, dream, feel, and grieve- just as we do, which brings to question a lot of human behaviors from zookeeping to pet ownership to pig farming.

The author of Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman was inspired to write this book based on her experiences with Oliver, her Bernese mountain dog that went through bizarre behaviors and mental illnesses that eventually killed him. Oliver suffered from two common afflictions- thunderstorm anxiety and separation anxiety, both in severe forms. One day he just couldn't take it any more and burst out a window in the home, falling four floors to the ground and nearly dying.

There's probably no other animal in the world that humans are more attached to than dogs, and Braitman chronicles her attempts to help her dog while interviewing experts on animal behaviors. She provides a fascinating history of our evolution from the 19th century to today in how we treat animals and their emotional problems.

For many years, both human and animal neuroses were diagnosed as either hysteria or melancholia, and the only treatment was institutionalization for humans and death for animals. Braitman tells the sad tales of zoo animals from that period who were ripped from their homes and put into lonely and unnatural situations where they became depressed and often died.

There's something called capture myopathy that causes intense stress responses in animals after they've been captured. If not handled correctly, the animal can die, even if the captor is trying to help it. Cages and small prison-like environments can bring on severe mental stress that is evident from neurotic and repetitive behaviors. It turns out that one of the worst stressors especially for advanced mammals like apes is being separated from their mothers too soon. Most baby animals rely on their mothers not only for food, but also for affection and guidance on how to exist in the animal world. (The same mental and emotional damage can be observed in human children who are separated from their mothers as babies).

Can animals commit suicide? According to this book they can, and it tells detailed stories of animals and animal trainers who have observed it. Sometimes the suicides are passive, where animals just stop eating and caring for themselves, and nature takes its course. And then there's the case of active suicides, of dolphins and whales who intentionally stop breathing and/or beach themselves in bizarre behaviors that we still don't understand.

Can animal mental health benefit from human pharmaceuticals? Animals can and do take billions of dollars worth of drugs like Prozac and Xanax, which mostly comes from pets that the owners can't control with regular behavior modifications. Apparently zoos and places like Seaworld rely heavily on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medicines, a fact that they don't like to publicize. Some captive animals, like apes, dolphins, and bears don't do well no matter how big you make their habitats, and to hide neurotic and disturbing behaviors many places have to resort to drugs. (Almost half of all zoos in one study drugged their gorillas according to this book).

Drug companies manipulate the guilty consciences of dog and cat owners to sell more medicines, and it's been working. Many pets, especially shelter pets, are mistreated when they're young, and don't take too well to their human's hectic schedules. So pet owners are using drugs more often to address disturbing, neurotic, or aggressive behaviors. There are now beef-flavored treats that contain Prozac.

Laurel Braitman is a science writer and not a PETA activist that I can tell. She makes some good points, and the experiences with her own dog obviously had a huge impact on her emotionally. She presents a good case here that animals suffer from emotional damage in many of the same ways that humans do, and we need to be more careful in how we treat them. She presents some helpful suggestions and tips for animal caretakers that need more publicity in the animal care world and beyond.

- For dogs, people need to understand dog's needs for attention, exercise, and play before getting one. Drugs are a last option and behavior modifications and training should always be used first for behavior issues. Dogs need walks, toys, and attention from humans or other dogs. Separation anxiety is a real problem for these animals that are so dependent on us, and no dog should be left along for more than eight hours at a time. When people get home, they need to stay off their screens and pay attention to their dogs until the bonds have been satisfied.

- As for cats, they require spaces that they can keep to themselves, like a cat tree. But they also need company and interaction with their humans, and cat toys for enrichment. According to the cat behavior office, cats need established routines and stability. Too much change or stress can make them anxious.

- Elephants are amazingly intelligent and emotional creatures and depend a lot on their caretakers and other elephants. They especially need their mothers early in life, and won't thrive in captivity unless given companionship, space, and love. Good mothers and rich early childhood experiences are key to a happy adult, and that applies to humans just as much as it does to any other animal.

- There are some animals that just shouldn't be held for public viewing in zoos or anywhere else. Animals like bears, dolphins, whales, gorillas, apes, and elephants should be removed from zoos and replaced with animals that do better in captivity and with humans. That would include typical petting zoo animals like goats, possums, horses, donkeys, llamas, and guinea pigs. It's not fair to the animals that can't handle captivity to drug them up and confine them in unnatural settings only to satisfy the public's curiosity.

- Sometimes the best therapy for a sick animal is another animal. This book details instances in which senior elephants and apes calm down other disturbed animals and help eliminate their neurotic behaviors through love and guidance. Even animals of different species can help each other. It's apparently a common practice in the racehorse industry for goats to live in the stables with their more stressed horses. The companionship of others made the horses calmer and easier to manage. This is no surprise, but the idea of "friendship therapy" is something that applies to humans as well, and is much more potent than any drug.

- Human beings have a long history of cruelty and indifference towards animals, but that is changing. Zoos and theme parks are changing their practices, the Ringling Brothers circus folded completely, and pets and their happiness are more front and center in many families. Our progress in the field of mental health is helping our fellow animals that we share the earth with, but there's still a long way to go, especially when it comes to factory farming.

Do animals have a soul? Do they think, feel, and have consciousness and memories? They can't talk, but we can see much through their eyes and their behavior. This book brings up many interesting points regarding animal psychology, points that can help teach humans how to be more happy and humane.

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