Bengaluru: Mysuru-based pet parent Geetha Naresh noticed her Australian terrier, Snoopy, behaving strangely when they first moved from Bengaluru. A happy and friendly dog back at their previous home, he was suddenly snapping at new neighbours as well as fellow canines.
“He’d bite and scratch himself repeatedly in the same spot, so much that his hair started falling off, and skin became visibly wounded,” she tells ThePrint. “And he’d eat only one meal a day.”
Chennai-based veterinarian Dr Poornima Aiyaswami had a similar experience with her rescue terrier Lady, who would often attempt to flee home, particularly when she’d draw a bath. Found completely hairless and weak near the Besant Nagar beach, Lady would socialise with her new family only during feeding time.
It took the terrier nearly nine months to get used to her new home, Aiyaswami recalls. The veterinarian suspects the dog was abused at her previous home, and carried trauma from living alone on the street.
Pet parents swear by the joy of animal companions, who can well turn around a bad day with a wag of their tail or any of their adorable antics. But it can be a crushing experience to find your pet gloomy and aloof, knowing they can’t express what’s bothering them.
Such symptoms can often send parents into the deep dark world of Google medical searches, but there’s a better, less alarming way out. A growing understanding about animal mental health has spawned an army of pet therapists who offer professional help in getting our friends to beat the blues. Quick guidance in the right direction, experts say, goes a long way.
On 1 August, a report in The Atlantic featured a scientist’s account of poachers’ hunting dogs attacking chimpanzees at Uganda’s Kibale National Park.
In the piece, Arizona State University anthropologist Kevin Langergraber describes a surviving chimpanzee going through a withdrawn, depression-like state after the death of another chimpanzee, who is described as a close friend.
Mother monkeys have been known to carry the fossilised remains of their babies, and, in 2017, an Indian photographer appeared to have photographed a primate’s anguished wailing for her child after he collapsed (don’t lose heart, the baby had just tripped and was up and running soon after the photo was taken).
Researchers have for years been fascinated by what appear to be similarities between human and animal mental health, and parallels have indeed been found — to the extent that zookeepers have been known to use psychopharmaceuticals, a class of drugs meant for mental health problems in humans, to keep animals calm in their enclosures.
Dr Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist and co-director of the Evolutionary Medicine Program at the University of California Los Angeles, says vulnerability to mental illness is biologically based, and rooted in our shared evolutionary ancestry with other animals.
“It should not be surprising. When a human gets a viral infection that affects the brain, for example, they may exhibit confusion or hallucinations, and the same can happen to a dog or cat or horse,” she says in an email to ThePrint.
“Similarly, brain systems that evolved to support safety (fear for example) are recruited and activated, leading to anxiety,” she adds.
Human moods, Natterson-Horowitz says, shift in ways connected to the levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, and serotonin — one such chemical — shifts with status changes.
“Our mood shifts likely evolved to signal shifts in our status within hierarchies in our animal ancestor groups,” she adds. “Higher status leads to greater evolutionary fitness, and is rewarded with pleasure. The opposite is true as well.”
Understanding the vagaries of mental health among animals can help humans deal better with their pets, who are often abandoned for “difficult behaviour” their parents fail to understand.
Veterinary behaviourist Niwako Ogata of Purdue University highlighted some behavioural problems seen in pets, in a paper published three years ago in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
She noted that behavioural changes such as aggression, anxiety, and fear-related problems are the primary reasons for individuals to relinquish their pet dogs.
Some examples of behavioural disorders in dogs and cats include short bursts of repetitive actions that do not have an apparent purpose, like pacing back and forth, self-licking to the point of wounding the skin, self-biting, chasing tail, and chasing shadows.
A few of these behaviours are comparable to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is characterised by obsessive thoughts and compulsive habits in humans (for example, checking a locked door repeatedly).
Susceptibility to OCD has been linked to chromosome 7 in dogs, which expresses in the brain’s hippocampus — the same region where OCD is expressed in humans.
Veterinary guidance is essential while treating such behavioural changes in pets, says zoologist and animal behaviour expert Naomi Harvey of the University of Nottingham.
According to her, when pets go through sudden behaviour changes, many owners turn to Google rather than accredited specialists such as pet behaviour counsellors, or veterinary behaviourists, leading to further problems. Because of this, she tells ThePrint, “the owners misunderstand their pet’s behaviour, or apply incorrect ‘treatment’”.
“Sudden behaviour changes in animals can often indicate a health problem, so any pet whose behaviour has changed should always have a veterinary health check first,” Harvey adds. “Once pain or hormonal disorders are ruled out, then seek the help of an accredited veterinary behaviourist to help understand what is causing your animal’s issues and get guidance on how to support them.”
Canine trainer Kaarthik Vaidun, who runs Colorific Kennels in Chennai, says a puppy starts imprinting — a process of learning by following its parent — as early as 45 days.
“If the animal shows bursts of aggression from a young age, pet parents do not immediately come to behaviourists, even after it bites someone in their neighbourhood,” he adds. “Most people consult a professional only after three to four years, when the pet bites someone in their own family.”
Any aggression that goes unchecked for a long period of time becomes a learned behaviour. In similar ways, animals can learn to become afraid, or show compulsive behaviour.
Starting on the right foot
Experts say it is much easier to prevent many behavioural problems in pets through proper training from a young age instead of looking for cures. And prevention involves proper focus in the critical period of development, from the age of 12 weeks in dogs, and between two and seven weeks in cats.
According to Vaidun, most behavioural problems in pets can be traced to human ignorance about the breeds to which they belong.
“Before deciding to adopt a dog, people must thoroughly research on the different breeds,” he says. “Once they have decided on the breed, they must spend time with an animal of the same kind that a friend or a family member might have.”
Some breeds like dalmations, and golden and labrador retrievers are innately very active, mentally and physically. If they are denied the level of outdoor exercise they need, Vaidun says, they may start showing signs of anxiety, or engage in self-harm.
Chennai-based animal behaviourist Prasanna Gopinath concurs, saying training pets from a very young age was the best way to avoid sudden behavioural changes.
Gopinath, who runs Benzi Pet Stay, says a boarding and training place for cats and dogs, the role of trainers is akin to that of beat cops, and that of pet behaviourists to detectives.
“If you have more patrolling cops, you can prevent crime from happening, as opposed to needing a detective to solve a committed crime,” he adds. “So, if the pets are trained right, you may not need a behaviourist.”
According to both Gopinath and Vaidun, most reported behavioural problems in pets are human-made — due to the pets being trained the wrong way from a young age, or by parents not spending enough time with their pets.
It is an approach that helped Naresh with Snoopy. She said Snoopy began to reclaim his happy disposition as she and her husband started balancing their work life in the new city around his needs.
Animal behaviourist and veterinarian Dr Nicholas Dodman explains in his book Pets on the Couch that proper socialisation is extremely crucial during an animal’s early life.
Completely isolating pets from the world, Dodman says, could lead to unwarranted distrust for people and other animals. He recommends “four Es” as a proven line of defence against unwelcome behaviour in pets: Enhance, Employ, Exercise, and Empathise.
“Enhance your pet’s environment with toys, distractions, and stimulating activities. Employ a sensible diet to match your pet’s needs. Exercise your pets daily. And finally, empathize with your pet’s state of being,” Dodman says.
The use of drugs
In June last year, Livemint carried a report on mental illness among pets that weighed in on the use of psychopharmaceuticals to calm animals down.
Dr Sanjiv Rajadhyaksha, a veterinarian at the Small Animal Clinic and Surgical Centre in Mumbai, was quoted as saying in the report that some medicines are shared by pets and humans — such as Alprazolam or Restin. He then mentioned herbal remedies catering specifically to pets, such as Anxocare by Himalaya, which are categorised as nutritional supplements but used as medicine.
However, Aiyaswami says, treating sudden behavioural challenges with psychopharmaceuticals may not permanently help the animal. They may only be a quick fix to help the pet parent approach “completely unmanageable pets” for better training, she adds. She also cautions that prolonged use of the drugs might get the animal addicted — similar to how some humans get hooked on such agents.
Aiyaswami says a better treatment approach is to understand the root cause of the disorders, and to gradually train the animal to come out of the behaviour.
“Only if anxiety or fear gets unmanageably worse, like due to the sound of fire-crackers during Diwali, or while travelling very long distances, I prescribe supplementary herbal medicines like Anxocare,” she adds.
Vishwam Sankaran is a freelance science writer based out of Chennai.