DEAR DR.FOX: I’ve got an odd question for you. As I was talking to my housemate, we got into the subject of schizophrenia and dementia. I wondered if all mammals can have such problems. And what about reptiles or birds? -- M.W.F., San Francisco
DEAR M.W.F.: Behavioral changes in animals caused by various factors can produce symptoms that resemble conditions seen in humans. In 1968, I brought together experts from around the world to contribute to the first textbook on the topic, entitled “Abnormal Behavior in Animals.” It served as a catalyst for more research and clinical studies of behavioral problems in animals captive and wild, including any and all mammalian and avian species. Reptiles and amphibians are more difficult to “read,” behaviorally. A more recent text on this topic was edited by veterinarian Franklyn D. McMillan in 2005 -- “Mental Health & Well-Being in Animals” -- again including chapters by experts from around the world.
In summary, many abnormal behaviors seen in humans are virtually identical to those seen in other animals, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCDs, including self-mutilation and repetitive movements like crib-biting in horses), anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, catatonia or seizures -- even with hallucinations. The latter may be interpreted as a form of dementia triggered by some intense, often fear-evoking stimulus, especially when there is no escape. Many dogs developed “air-snapping” behaviors (also called “fly-snapping”) after air raids in England during World War II, and dogs in Pavlov’s Leningrad laboratory, terror-stricken during a flood, remained traumatized long after. These reactions can be interpreted as a form of dementia, mania or OCD, and are often triggered by fear and the inability to escape or hide.
Certainly, many captive species become demented as a consequence of extreme confinement, separation anxiety and boredom, a problem in dogs caged or crated all day in so many homes, as well as in sows on factory farms. Degenerative changes in the brain related to aging, and possibly genetics and nutritional deficiencies, can lead to dementia in humans and other animals; one form of dementia in cats shows virtually identical changes in the brain to those seen in Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Changes in brain function and behavior in humans and other animals have an organic, rather than a psychological/emotional, origin. They can be attributed to various external environmental factors such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, viral and parasitic infections, adverse vaccine reactions and poisoning from mercury and lead.
An organic, biochemical basis for abnormal behavior which may be interpreted as schizoid is seen in some dog breeds with sudden, unpredictable, impulsive aggression, which may be improved by medications and nutraceuticals that increase serotonin levels in the brain.
As more studies are done on abnormal behaviors in animals, I predict there will be a significant change in how non-humans are regarded and treated. For centuries, animals have been treated as though they had neither emotions like ours, nor ways of suffering analogous to our own; we are beginning to learn how wrong those ideas are.
DEAR DR. FOX: Help! Our 20-month-old cockapoo has terrible separation anxiety. We put her in her crate at night downstairs, but when she wakes up (sometimes as early as 3 a.m.), she barks continuously until we let her out. We’ve tried letting her “bark it out,” but that isn’t working. Perhaps we are too impatient.
Obviously, we’ve not taught her well. Any ideas on how to change this behavior? -- J.H., Oak Hill, Virginia
DEAR J.H.: The problem is not that you are being impatient or that you’ve failed to train her properly. The issue is that dogs are pack animals. This means that your dog needs to be with the family and not put in a crate for the night.
Proper crate-training is a gradual process of helping the pup adapt to being in a confined space for a short period, gradually increasing in duration. Treats and toys in the crate often help. The goal is to help the young animal feel that the crate is a rewarding place of security, her den, and not some kind of punishment and deprivation of being with the family.
Try moving the crate into your bedroom, making it like a cozy den, with the crate door open so she can enter and leave as she chooses. She may prefer to sleep on the bed with you, or on your floor in a soft dog bed, if not in the open crate. This is normal behavior for a pack animal. I hope these are feasible options for you and your family.
SAY NO TO TRENDY ‘MUNCHKIN’ CATS
Veterinarians and animal welfare advocates in the U.K. and U.S. are alarmed by the deliberate breeding of cats with unnaturally short legs. So-called “munchkin” cats have a genetic mutation that predisposes the animals to painful osteoarthritis, and some also have spinal malformations and rib abnormalities, says veterinarian Carol Margolis of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxVet.net.)