In an engrossing new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, science historian Laurel Braitman investigates the symptoms, causes and recoveries associated with behavioral disturbances in a wide variety of social animals. Starting with her own dog, Oliver, who suffered from debilitating separation anxiety, she discovered that mental illness in animals looks a lot like it does in people. In a recent conversation on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley, she shared some of her insights with us.
Claudia Kawczynska: In the book, you talk about the use of psychopharmaceuticals, pointing out that not only is one in five Americans on them, but also, increasing numbers of dogs are being given them as well. But there seems to be a divide in the veterinary field on their use. After looking into this subject, how do you feel about it?
Laurel Braitman: Sometimes our dogs need them, or the drugs are used as a band-aid to correct for stressors in a dog’s life that could be changed. Sometimes the drugs don’t work. They don’t always work for people either actually, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them in the right situation. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist, said that if the dogs she sees were humans, most of them would be committed to in-patient facilities. That is why she thinks drugs are useful in really extreme situations—to keep dogs from hurting themselves while giving behavior therapy time to work.
It’s really hard to generalize, though; so much depends on the individual dog. A certain dosage of, let’s say, Xanax, may make some dogs so blissed out that they don’t want a treat or whatever is being offered as an incentive. Other dogs might do really well on the same dosage. And different dogs will react differently to different drugs.
A lot of the behaviorists I spoke with are seeing dogs on dosages that would have calmed most canines, but are in the behaviorists’ waiting rooms because the drug didn’t work for them. There are also cases where a drug causes other issues—such as reducing inhibitions so that a previously-friendly dog becomes more aggressive.
CK: How similar are certain human and canine disorders?
LB: Panic disorders in humans are really similar to canine separation anxiety; when we’re flooded with panic, our first instinct is to escape. The same feeling drives the behaviors seen in many dogs anxious at being left alone; in my own dog’s case, he fled by jumping out of a window.
With humans, we assume that the roots of the disorder have to be dealt with in therapy over time—that we need to understand the triggers for someone’s panic. The approach for nonhumans should be the same.
Drugs are helpful when a dog is so upset, so distressed or suffering so much that the behavioral things that experts such as Ian Dunbar suggest just aren’t possible. Pharmaceuticals act like panic buttons; they can help the animal tap into the physical and emotional resources they need to be able to learn.
CK: It seems like there are at least two approaches to calming an anxious dog. Some veterinarians (such as the late Mel Richardson) believe that soothing an anxious dog isn’t the best approach—that petting only rewards the panicked behavior. But others, including Patricia McConnell, make a compelling case for the opposite approach. This is an important difference.
LB: McConnell is right! Dogs are complex thinkers and will not automatically equate you petting them with positive reinforcement. If they did, dog training would be a hell of a lot simpler! The example that Mel gave, and I included in the book, is different, however. A patient of his came in with a dog who acted scared in her living room, ever since a plate dropped off a wall during a fight the woman had with her boyfriend. The woman may have been rewarding her dog for hugging the sides of the room, not necessarily comforting him for something that was stressful. We do at times unwittingly positively reinforce our animals for behaviors we then find undesirable; but soothing your dog during thunderstorms or fireworks displays makes a lot of sense.