Arts, Culture & Media

A new book sheds light on the often complex inner lives of animals

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Anyone with a pet that engages in inexplicably odd behavior can tell you the emotional life of animals is rich and often wildly unpredictable.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

“The animal kingdom is so much more bizarre and wonderful than you can possibly imagine,” says author Laurel Braitman.

Braitman spent seven years researching and writing her new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. Braitman’s interest in the complex emotional and mental states of animals grew out of her experience with her own dog, Oliver.

Oliver, Braitman says, was “dashing, charming, gorgeous, affectionate — a true pleasure to be around,” until he developed debilitating separation anxiety. “My husband and I couldn't leave him alone without him panicking and freaking out,” Braitman says. “He became agressive with other dogs and sometimes [with] small children. ... He hallucinated. He would eat things that weren’t food. He had a whole host of issues.”

After Oliver jumped from the third floor of their brownstone in Washington, DC — miraculously surviving the 55 foot drop — Braitman decided she had to figure out how to help him. She took Oliver to a Veterinary Behaviorist, who gave the dog prescriptions for Prozac and Xanax.

Braitman says she was just starting her doctoral degree in the history of science at that time and was reading a lot of Charles Darwin. She discovered that Darwin and some of his colleagues accepted that nonhuman animals could lose their minds. If this wasn’t big news for Darwin, she wondered, why did she feel so shocked by refilling her dog’s prescription at CVS?

It turns out that giving a nonhuman animal a mental health diagnosis is “not as weird as you might think,” she says.

Only with the rise of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century did people begin to think that “in order to understand emotional suffering in person, we have to talk to them about it,” Braitman says. “Before that, physicians often diagnosed emotional suffering in people through observation — noticing things like a racing hearbeat and their startle response, or if they seem to have changed from how they were before whatever incident might have set them down the path to emotional distress.”

It's also how we diagnose suffering in small children, she points out.

Nonhuman animals engage in many of the same perplexing behaviors and suffer from many of the same anxieties and fears humans do. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for instance, is a relatively common problem, in people and in other creatures, because most OCD behaviors are healthy animal activities and emotional experiences gone awry, Braitman says. This is true for anxiety disorders as well.

How many pet owners can tell you stories of pets traumatized beyond recognition by the absence of an owner? Or pets who have to walk around in a circle exactly six times before eating, or who refuse to go out for walks at night for weeks following July 4 fireworks or a particularly bad thunderstorm?

Pet owners will often try everything, from herbs to behavior therapy to lots of extra exercise to try to lessen their pet’s suffering. But, as with humans, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy to emotional pain in nonhuman animals, Braitman says.

“Psychopharmaceuticals will help some of us, they won’t help others. ... Sometimes you try everything and it doesn't help,” Braitman says. “In the end, my own dog died in a panic-related incident.”

Braitman says she often “felt like a service animal for my own dog. I felt like I was mediating his experience of the world, and trying to protect him — and I think that's one thing that humans do spectacularly well.”

Many researchers scorn this kind of anthropomorphic thinking about animals, but Braitman disagrees.

“We will always be one animal wondering and thinking and using our perspective to try to understand the emotional experience of another creature,” she says. “So I would like us just be honest about that and give up on this idea of an untainted, pure, scientific objectivity that allows us to think clearly about other animals. We often can't, particularly when we care for those animals, and I think that's a good thing.”

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