Animal madness - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

Animal madness

Written by on September 15, 2015 in Wellness with 0 Comments

UnknownI used to co-own a cat called Uma who spent the best part of her long life as an indoor cat. Uma’s other owner and I lived in the inner city and our concern was if we let Uma roam the streets, she’d soon end up the subject of one of those ‘Missing’ posters you often see on telegraph poles.

For years, Uma seemed very happy in her confinement. The house was big enough and there was enough fresh air and sun. But one day, Uma got out and although she was back inside soon enough, her short taste of freedom had a big impact. From then on, Uma seemed to exhibit all the signs of depression. She stopped eating, slept all the time, and I was convinced that whenever she looked out the window her implacable cat face took on a wistful expression.

We had to do something and in the end, we had a friend custom build Uma a cat run that gave her access to our tiny backyard. Being able to lie in the grass, smell all the smells, and feel the breeze in her fur worked wonders on her spirits – her appetite returned, she slept less, she purred more – and really confirmed for me that animals are emotional creatures just like us and as such, subject to occasional mental dysfunction.

Plenty of other pet owners would agree with me, among them Dr Laurel Braitman who’s actually studied the phenomenon of animal emotions and neurosis, and who is presenting here. Braitman, who wrote the bestseller Animal Madness, says her research not only proves animals can suffer from mental illness, but that “actually looking and trying to identify mental illness in them often helps us be better friends to them, and also can help us better understand ourselves.”

It turns out humans and animals share many mental disorders including depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and various phobias. But this doesn’t mean yours and Fido’s PTSD are the same. On the contrary, as Braitman says, “I also do not think my PTSD is like your PTSD, or that my anxiety, or that my sadness, is like yours. We’re all different. We all have different susceptibilities.”

Braitman says she wants us to “feel empowered to make some assumptions” about our beloved pets. “If you think that they are traumatised or depressed, you’re probably right.” She concedes this is “extremely anthropomorphic” but it shouldn’t be a problem provided we “anthropomorphise well … based on accepting our animal similarities with other species, and using them to make assumptions that are informed about other animals’ minds and experiences.”

Braitman says the psychopharmaceutical industry already does this very well in that “we owe this entire psychopharmaceutical arsenal to other animals. These drugs were tested in non-human animals first, and not just for toxicity but for behavioural effects.” Hardly surprising then that the very same drugs are now also used to treat animals.

In many cases, though, the preferred alternative is therapeutic interventions, the most helpful being “time with other social animals”. Here again, critters and people have much common, According to Braitman, studies show “oxytocin levels raising in both humans and dogs who care about each other or who enjoy each other’s company, and beyond that, other studies show that oxytocin raised even in other pairs of animals.” In other words, the positive effects of companionship transcend any species barrier.

Braitman says that as a result of her own and other’s observations, she can no longer regard animals merely “at the species level. I look at them as individuals … and I really believe that this has made me a more curious and a more empathetic person, both to the animals but also to the people that I know who are suffering from anxiety and from phobias and all manner of other things.”


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