Why Is My Dog Chasing His Tail? Understanding Mental Illness In Animals

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Laurel Braitman looks at the inner lives of dogs and other members of the animal kingdom in her new book. (Ruben Bos/Flickr)
Laurel Braitman looks at the inner lives of dogs and other members of the animal kingdom in her new book. (Ruben Bos/Flickr)

Birds, cats, whales, chimps and many other types of animals can experience mental illnesses that mirror our own symptoms. Laurel Braitman experienced that when she adopted a 4-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver. His very troubled behavior convinced her and Oliver's veterinarians that the dog was emotionally unstable.

That diagnosis led Braitman to travel the world in search of mentally disturbed animals and the people who care for them. The result is her new book, "Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves."

Braitman speaks with WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer about depression, anxiety and other emotional issues in the animal kingdom — and whether humans are sometimes responsible for mental disturbances in their pets.

Laurel Braitman will be reading and signing books Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Bookstore.


Laurel Braitman, author of "Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves." She finished her Ph.D in history and anthropology at MIT last year. She tweets at @LaurelBraitman.


On the behavioral issues of Laurel's dog, Oliver:
Laurel Braitman: "It was a change in his behavior. His first six months with us were a dream. He was affectionate and friendly and playful. But about six months in he developed devastating separation anxiety. He couldn't be left alone because he basically became a ball of terror and quaked in anxiety anytime he was by himself. He also became aggressive with small dogs, he developed a range of OCD-like behaviors where he would lick himself to injury and he started to eat things that weren't food."

On gorillas with homesickness and bears suffering from heartbreak:
LB: "Those are historical examples, and what I found was that the history of insanity in other animals really clearly paralleled our own. So if you look back in history and you see that people were thought to die of heartbreak or homesickness or nostalgia, there was a whole range of creatures who were suffering from the same things at the same time and made headlines in the newspapers. And today, the same thing is true. Children can be diagnosed with separation anxiety and so can our dogs. We can be diagnosed with OCD and so can other animals."

On mental illness in animals stemming from trauma or brain chemistry:
LB: "It's a mixture of all those things, and what I came to is that it's the same as the answer to the question in humans, which is, we don't know what causes mental illness in humans. It's a whole cornucopia of things. And the same can be true of other animals. People do often ask me, though, is it just animals who've been abused and mistreated by people? And that is absolutely not true. That can trigger disturbing behavior in another animal, but lots of creatures who've been raised in the same house, who've been treated fairly and justly and with lots of affection and tender, loving care can lose their minds."

On whether animals exclude other animals with mental illness:
LB: "It depends how it's manifesting. I think a lot of creatures such as elephants or bonobos — I saw many cases where animals in a heard or in a troop would go out of their way to help another creature. And, actually, one of the clearest examples happened here in Boston at the Franklin Park Zoo with the gorilla Gigi. She is a low-line gorilla, she lives inside Franklin Park Zoo and she developed what reminded her psychiatrist here in Boston of PTSD and a panic disorder. The other female creatures came to her aid over the course of many years. They now protect her from the male that she was scared of and I think they're largely responsible for her emotional health."

On our responsibility for dogs with separation anxiety:
LB: "I think we are doing this but we're doing it to ourselves, too. Both dogs and people — we haven't had time to adapt to the lives that we're living. We both spend too much time pent-up inside. I think dogs and people would be happier with less screen time."


"Most urban and suburban dogs are only encouraged to be themselves for a very small fraction of the day. In my neighborhood, just outside of San Francisco, the early evening just before sunset is that fraction. You can feel the collective wags of thousands of tails, the expectant panting at the door, the anticipation of the click of the leash on the collar and then the overwhelming joy of going out. Out! They flood the sidewalks around my house with their pent-up frustrations. At the park, the humans stand around tossing balls or chatting idly or calling their dog off another's rump. A half hour or an hour later it's back to the house for dinner, some petting, maybe some television with the humans and then bed. But this is not enough time for dogs to do dog things, even if they get to do it in the morning too."


The Atlantic: Brian The Mentally Ill Bonobo, And How He Healed

  • "Things were not looking good for Brian. He'd been kept from the affection of his mother—and all other women—and raised alone by his father, who sexually traumatized him. Normal social interactions were impossible for him. He couldn't eat in front of others and required a series of repeated, OCD-like rituals before he'd take food. He was scared of any new thing, and when he got stressed, he'd just curl up into the fetal position and scream."

Wall Street Journal: When Animals Lose Their Minds

  • "No one saw Oliver, our fluffy, dark-eyed Bernese Mountain dog, at the kitchen window, even though it must have taken him a long time to push the air-conditioning unit out of the way and rip a hole through the screen. My husband and I were away, and the pet sitter had gone out. When Oliver realized he was alone, he panicked and tried to escape. This wouldn't have been a serious problem except that we lived on the third floor of a brownstone. Oliver fell 55 feet onto the cement, into the basement stairwell; he survived."

Grass Widow performs "Milo Minute" for the gorillas at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo as part of Laurel's "Music for Animals" series:

This segment aired on June 13, 2014.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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