Buddie can’t afford to miss taking his meds–and it’s not easy to keep all of them straight. There is the milligram of Xanax he gets every six to eight hours. There are the 30 mg of Prozac he takes daily. There used to be Valium and Ativan, but he moved on to other things when they weren’t helping.
Clearly, Buddie has issues, and the fact that he’s a dog doesn’t make them easier to watch. A 13-year-old beagle-sheltie mix, he has been suffering periodic panic attacks since he was 10. The episodes usually begin with his leaping up as if he’s been bitten. He then spends days in a state of agitation and terror–with his family utterly helpless to make him feel better.
“He can’t be verbally interrupted when this happens,” says his owner Gail Puntin, a clinical social worker in Tyringham, Mass. “It usually lasts four to five days.”
Out of options, Puntin has brought Buddie to the Foster Hospital for Small Animals on the campus of Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass., a place known archly among some pet owners as Last Resort Nation. “So many people come in and say, ‘If you can’t fix this problem, I’m going to have to put this animal to sleep,'” says Nick Dodman, director of Tufts’ animal behavior department of clinical sciences. In addition to overseeing the work of the department, Dodman is the personal physician to many of the animals brought to the clinic, and he has just added Buddie to his patient load. “Buddie has a pretty long chart,” Dodman says, flipping through the dog’s medical records. “But I won’t know what we can do for him until I see him.”
As a society, we’ve come a long way in appreciating the importance of mental health and the need to address mental illness in humans. Now, thanks to advances in areas like biology, genetics and neuroscience, we are learning more about the vulnerabilities of the animal mind. It isn’t easy: only the animals know what they’re feeling, and they’re not saying. But the mind of a human baby is unknowable too, and we still learn a lot by watching. We know when a baby is happy, when it’s sad, when it’s frightened. If a baby could lose its mind, we’d be able to intuit that too.
So it is with animals. And it turns out the ones we encounter closely enough to observe have more reasons to go to pieces than others. Animals in the wild live the lives they’re intended to live. Animals that are forced to interact with humans live very different ones–in zoos, circuses, amusement parks. They are kept on farms, in stables and labs, living in cages, pens and crates. Even the ones that are cosseted in our homes spend much of their time confined indoors when every scrap of DNA they have is telling them to be out in a field or forest. So some of them go nuts.
Animals in zoos sway and pace and sink into languor. Chickens on industrial farms peck one another to death. Tilikum the orca lived up to the “killer whale” misnomer by which his species is known when he dragged Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer at SeaWorld, to her death in 2010. Gus the polar bear, the famed attraction at the Central Park Zoo in New York City until his death in 2013, swam in robotic laps back and forth in a small pool from which he realized there was no escape.
It’s the animals we know the best, however–the ones that become part of our families–that touch us most, which overwhelmingly means dogs and cats and birds. Parrots in cages tear at their own feathers. Abused dogs retreat in terror at the sight of a human hand. Cats and dogs engage in what appears to be obsessive-compulsive behavior, licking a patch of fur over and over until it becomes infected. Animals exhibit night terrors, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), separation anxiety, hoarding, depression and more. Increasingly, veterinarians are realizing that animal brains operate in many of the same ways human brains do–which means they can break down the same ways as well.
Fifteen years ago, says Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M University and the executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, nearly anyone wanting to bring a pet to an animal psychologist could book an appointment within a week. “Everyone practicing now,” she says, “has a waiting list 2½ to three months long.”
Reading the Signs
The beast has not been born that can fill out a personality survey, which means we must lean heavily on observation–an admittedly imperfect method. But biology is biology, and it operates in a fixed number of ways. “A dog is the same bunch of chemicals we are,” says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “All mammals share the same structures in the limbic system for emotions.”
It goes even deeper than that. Dodman has published a paper in which he reports finding a gene in Doberman pinschers that is associated with a breed-specific form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involving compulsively nursing on an object like a blanket or a part of their body.
To Dodman, that looked like the human condition known as pica, which involves a compulsive need to mouth or eat nonedible things. And pica, in turn, is associated with hoarding, another frequent expression of OCD. When Dodman put afflicted Dobermans inside a magnetic resonance imager, he noticed abnormal levels of activity in the right anterior insula–the same place all those same behaviors are mediated in the human brain.
Just as with human brains, animal brains can have their levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin elevated by antidepressants, reducing symptoms. But again, as with humans, not every animal is a good candidate for every medication. Long, lanky dogs like greyhounds and whippets–the so-called sight hounds, because they hunt primarily with vision and speed–can be especially tricky. “They are notorious for having different metabolisms and being hit very hard by drugs,” says Dodman.
Overall, according to Beaver, only a minority of animals are helped by taking drugs, but that’s better than none at all. What’s more, the way drugs are tested for humans actually gives nonhumans a head start. “Because most medications that come to market have gone through animal studies,” says Beaver, “we have some background on them.”
There are limits to the parallels between human and animal patients, of course. Take those constantly grooming cats. They seem to be exhibiting OCD–a legitimate diagnosis, but only till it isn’t. Beaver likes to talk about a 2006 study in which researchers wanted to investigate this so-called psychogenic grooming. They gathered a group of 21 symptomatic cats, but before the study could proceed, the animals had to be screened for dermatological diseases to rule out problems as straightforward as a rash. The result? “Nineteen of 21 cats had a derm problem,” says Beaver.
This kind of misinterpretation bedevils pet owners too. A dog exhibits all the signs of sadness, so humans determine that it must be feeling sad. “But just because the animal has their head down does not necessarily mean they’re sad,” says Beaver. “They may have a headache. We don’t even know if they get a headache.”
Birdsong, similarly, sounds happy to us, so we assume that’s how the bird feels. But a song to our ears may be a threat or territorial claim to another bird, and a canary in a cage has a lot to feel threatened about. “In trying to understand what’s going on in an animal’s mind,” says Beaver, “we have to view it through filters that limit our capacity to understand.”
Talk Therapy–Sort Of
Still, very often the diagnosis is correct. The question is, Then what? Pet owners rarely want to use medication as a first resort, and that makes sense. Sometimes the easiest intervention is what’s known as enrichment, or improving the animal’s surroundings. This is often used in zoos, memorably with Gus, who was given toys to play with as well as food frozen in blocks of ice that he had to work to reach and eat–a more engaging way to get his dinner than simply being tossed a fish.
“We say we’re going to make them work for their food,” says Valerie Hare, head of the nonprofit group Shape of Enrichment, which consults with zoos, farms and other operations. “But if they don’t do the work, we’re still going to feed them. We’re giving them a sense of control over some aspects of their environment.”
For house pets–particularly those living in apartments–a similar strategy might involve more activity-stimulating toys or simply more time outside. When one family came to Dodman with an anxious border collie, he recommended enrolling the dog in a herding class, which is what it would be doing if it lived in the semiwild of a farm anyway.
Other kinds of behavior therapy can take more time. Dogs returning from war zones exhibit signs of PTSD–jumpiness, anxiety, poor sleep, loss of appetite–and how could they not? An explosion is an explosion whether you’re a canine or a human, and repeated explosions take their toll. So too does the smell of blood and an environment of fear and combat. Making the animals feel safe again can involve a lot of time spent just being with them, tending to them and backing off when they need time to themselves.
Tilikum the whale might be the animal world’s most notorious PTSD survivor, with not one but three deaths on his rap sheet. In 1991, a trainer fell into his tank, and he and two other orcas drowned her. In 1999, a dead man was found lying across Tilikum’s back, having apparently entered the water-park grounds at night. No one knows how the man died, but the incident did not do much for Tilikum’s rep.
But if Tilikum turned bad, he had reason. He was only 2 when his family was slaughtered and he was captured. He spent the next year in a small cement tank in Iceland and has spent every year since in bigger pools that still do not remotely resemble the ocean he called home. Messing with powerful emotions in a powerful animal was never going to end well.
“Considering all those factors,” says behavioral biologist Toni Frohoff, a co-author of the book Dolphin Mysteries, “the fact that there’s any remnant of a functional orca in him could be a testament to his strength.”
The same is true of smaller animals. The pit bulls who were rescued from the dogfighting ring operated by NFL player Michael Vick were put through a rehabilitation that consisted mostly of teaching them to trust the new people they were getting to know. They may never be able to engage with other dogs, especially other pit bulls, since they were bred to fight one another in the first place. For some of them, any recovery may be impossible. The ideal period for socialization of a dog comes very early in its life–at 4 to 8 weeks of age. Filling that period with terror and pain may simply leave too much emotional scar tissue behind.
“Dogs that have been mentally abused, that have been beaten, may be desocialized,” says Beaver. “They passed that golden time period when socialization occurs.”
Ultimately, the simple matter of age will claim all pets. Loss of hearing, poor vision, aching joints and deteriorating cognitive function have the same effect on an animal’s mood as they have on a human’s–and it’s not good. Dodman spent his first session with Buddie mostly observing his 13-year-old patient and talking to Puntin about Buddie’s behavior.
The preliminary diagnosis was bad: the problem was likely related to seizures caused by a slow-growing brain tumor. It would explain the geriatric onset of the behavior and the fact that it is inconsistent with a dog who historically had an even temperament. An MRI would settle the diagnosis, but an MRI costs $800, and there would be nothing to do about a tumor even if one were discovered. Buddie has already lived past the 11-to-12-year life expectancy for a dog of his size and mix. “I want to treat him conservatively, given his age,” Puntin decided, and Dodman agreed.
Anti-inflammatories for Buddie’s arthritic hips would help, allowing him to play more. And an anticonvulsant could help eliminate or at least ease the seizures. “He’s a good old dog,” Dodman says, patting him. “You want to keep him comfortable.”
End-of-life care is not enough for other, younger pets–ones with many years of potentially happy life ahead of them, if only their unhappy minds would permit it. Ideally, all domesticated animals would be able to end their days like Alex, the famed gray parrot that died in 2007 at age 31 and was raised from chickhood by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who taught him 100 words and made him a go-to case for people studying the animal mind.
On the last night of Alex’s life, according to his obituary in the New York Times (yes, Alex had an obituary in the New York Times), Pepperberg was covering his cage and he said, “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.” He was found dead the next morning, but he had lived happily, and as far as can ever be known, he died peacefully. Buddie–and every other animal whose lot has been cast with us–deserves the same chance.
–WITH REPORTING BY DAVID BJERKLIE AND ANDRÉA FORD/NEW YORK CITY
This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.