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Pets with mental illness

Volume 7 Number 6 June 5 - July 10 2011

Chester, an anxious little dog, is on the road to recovery thanks to Dr Carter’s treatment. Photo: Kirrily Zimmerman
Chester, an anxious little dog, is on the road to recovery thanks to Dr Carter’s treatment. Photo: Kirrily Zimmerman

As the mysteries of animal behaviour are unravelled, experts are gaining new insight into the minds of our furry friends. Sally Sherwen talks to Veterinary Behaviourist, Dr Gabrielle Carter.

Mental illness is not only a problem many humans battle, animals too can suffer from anxiety, mental distress and phobias.

Dr Gabrielle Carter from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary Science specialises in animal behaviour and is working to increase awareness of mental illness in pets.

Many animals share similar biological systems, for example, the nervous system and brains of different mammals are very similar, Dr Carter explains.

“So, if humans are recognised as having mental illness based in altered brain function, then it is reasonable to expect other animals would too,” she says.

 “And we do see these problems in a range of species including cats, dogs, horses, birds and many more.”

Dr Carter explains that mental illness can manifest in different forms in animals. Some common conditions include: separation anxiety, noise phobias and aggression in dogs; urine spraying and compulsive over-grooming in cats; and feather picking and over-bonding in birds.

It is important for the welfare of our animals that we recognise and treat these problems, Dr Carter explains.

“One of the guiding principles of the Animal Welfare Act of Australia, is that animals should be free from pain and distress,’ she says.

“As such, it is essential we keep our animals mentally, as well as physically, well.”

Dr Carter is dedicated to helping these mentally-ill animals recover through novel behavioural therapies and in some cases, medication.

A recent success story of Dr Carter’s involves a dog that suddenly developed a fear of her backyard.

“She would not voluntarily go in to the yard, and would try and escape if left there when the owners were absent,” she says.

“She also developed generalised anxiety and became fearful of people, noises, and anything unfamiliar and would spend most of her day in the owners’ bedroom.

“We are unsure but assume that something really traumatic occurred to her in the backyard and as a result, she developed symptoms suggestive of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“She was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and a behaviour modification program. This involved building a positive emotional association with the back yard and other things that worried her. It took several months of dedication on the part of the owners, but she is now back on track.”

Animals of the feathered variety are also common patients for Dr Carter, and one such patient, a beautiful Eclectus parrot, presented with a feather plucking problem.

“The parrot would continuously pick at her feathers because she was stressed through over-bonding to her owner,” Dr Carter says.

“Her breeding hormones were constantly high because of this over-bonding. The owner would inadvertently encourage the bonding by petting a lot, particularly, down the back, around the face and under the wings. He would also ‘kiss’ the bird, which is a similar behaviour to feeding beak to beak which is a mating behaviour.

“This persistent state of breeding readiness leads to stress in birds. So we altered the owner’s interactions with the bird and also improved the environment and behavioural opportunities and eliminated the opportunity to nest build, and since, the bird has stopped feather picking.”

From curing a dog’s fear of her backyard to treating an over-bonded bird, Dr Carter is helping mentally ill pets one by one but she is concerned nonetheless about the many animals with mental disease that slip under the radar and go undiagnosed.

“There are outdated models of pet behaviour that are still being used to explain troublesome behaviour in pets, and this is a real concern because it means mental disorders aren’t being diagnosed,” Dr Carter says.

For example many dogs that show aggression are still commonly being labelled as dominant and just enforcing a pecking order, but dominance theory applied to dogs is out-dated and inaccurate, she explains.

“We now know that the majority of dogs have anxiety or fear as an underlying cause for aggression, and will attack if they feel threatened or scared.”

“We need to recognise that behavioural problems may have an organic basis to them, with genetics having a significant effect on behaviour.

“So as science continues to unravel the fascinating relationship between the mind and the body, it is important that we monitor and remain aware of our pet’s body language to ensure their mental well-being.”