Thursday, February 21, 2013

Can Animals Be Mentally Ill?

By Langley Cornwell

We enrolled our new dog in a group training class and the experience has been eye-opening. The class is filled with all kinds of dogs and all kinds of people. Some dogs catch on to the commands immediately, while others take a long time to learn what’s expected of them. One gal is having a hard time with her dog. She told the trainer that her dog acts crazy at home too, and she’s sure her dog is mentally ill. The comment stimulated a class discussion about whether animals can actually be mentally ill.

According to the University of Melbourne’s research department, the answer is yes. Dr. Gabrielle Carter, a faculty member of the University’s Veterinary Science department, specializes in animal behavior. Not only is Dr. Carter an expert in her field but, because this is a relatively new area of study, she is an advocate and is working hard to increase awareness of mental illness in pets.

Dr. Carter explains that even though there are tremendous dissimilarities in different mammals, their biological systems, brains and nervous systems share similarities. She reasons that if humans are known to have mental illness based in altered brain function, then it is sensible to expect the same holds true for other animals.

Mental illness in different animals manifests in different ways. For example, dogs may suffer from noise phobias, separation anxiety and aggression. Cats may compulsively over-groom themselves and spray inappropriately.

Through behavioral therapies and in this case, medication, Dr. Carter recently helped a dog that had inexplicably developed a fear of her own backyard. The dog wouldn’t go into the yard she had once loved. If she was forced into the yard, she would desperately try to escape. The dog’s mental issues got worse; she became acutely fearful of anything unfamiliar, developed generalized anxiety issues and extreme noise phobias. It got to the point where the dog spent most of her time cowering in her owner’s bedroom.

The owners had no idea why this dog’s behavior changed so radically. The only thing which made sense was that something traumatic happened to the dog when she was in her backyard and as a result, she developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Carter treated this dog by prescribing anti-anxiety medication and a behavior modification program. The dog’s owners worked to build positive emotional associations (CANIDAE dog treats can help in this area) with the back yard and with the other things that troubled the dog. After several months of work, the dog is getting back to her old self.

The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is another well-established organization devoted to animal mental health and behavioral welfare. In America, there are 57 board certified veterinary behaviorists who see a variety of species for mental health problems as well as behavioral issues.

Even though there is a growing understanding of mental illness in animals, many animals with mental disease go undiagnosed. Animal shelters are filled with dogs and cats that have been surrendered by their owners due to undiagnosed and untreated mental issues.

Here is a partial list of warning signs:


Lethargy, slowed movements

Increased sleep

Change in appetite

Decrease in water consumption

Rapid weight gain or loss

Increased shedding

Restless, anxious behavior

Separation Anxiety  

Howling: the dog will make noise, voicing their distress

Wreaking havoc: the dog will create a mess in your house when you are away

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) 

Pulling out clumps of hair

Biting themselves, sometimes until they bleed

Repeated licking, sometimes in concentric circles

Armed with knowledge and love, these conditions are manageable. As science continues to unravel the relationship between the mind and the body, it is important that responsible pet owners monitor and remain aware of their pet’s behavior to ensure their physical as well as mental well-being.

Dog photo by Arkansas ShutterBug
Cat photo by Cliff Cooper

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. That is pretty interesting information. Our Border Collie has OCD I think She licks everything from her body, legs and the rug or bed. I think she needs more exercise and it is well known that a Border Collie really needs to have a job. So do you really think that is a sign of being mentally ill?? I really think different breeds have different problems. But that is just my opinion.

  2. How sad that so many animals' mental illnesses go undiagnosed. I'm glad to know that some in the veterinary field are starting to recognize this as a possibility.

  3. When my first cat was 19 or so, she started acting very strange. She would jump off the back of the sofa to attack the wall, run wildly down the hallway, & she started pooing on the floor wherever she was when she had to go. When we took her in to the vet, he said she was probably suffering from feline dementia because she was so old. She was also starting to develop kidney failure, which was not bad at that point but would become so over time, and worse for her again because of her age. We chose to have her put down that day, still one of the worst days of my life 25 years later, but I can say that I agree that animals can have mental illnesses.


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