Let’s Talk Right Meow: Addressing Mental Health in Pets

By January 27, 2020 February 26th, 2020 Miscellaneous

We tend to think of mental or psychological illnesses as a uniquely human trait. However, if you have ever suspected your dog has anxiety or depression, or that your cat has a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder, you could be right. Most veterinarians and animal behaviourists and psychologists think that animals can suffer from mental disorders, but not in the same way humans do. Most mental disorders in humans are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain; however, in animals, we more commonly see these disorders when pets have been poorly socialized, lack outlets for their stress, mistreated, or are unable to seek what they want or need.

Observation and research have shown that military dogs can suffer from the canine form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These dogs behave the same way as their human counterparts and some of these dogs are being treated using drugs to cure panic attacks and anxiety in humans. Similar behaviours, such as hypervigilance, aggression, clinginess, insomnia, and even panic attacks, are also seen in civilian dogs that been through a natural disaster or abandoned by their owners.

Not only are the symptoms of anxiety and depression shared between animals and humans, but the treatments can be similar too. Pet antianxiety/ antidepressants medications are not uncommon, and can be very effective as well. As with humans, it is best to manage their use by combining a course of meds with targeted behavioral therapy.  Environmental management can also contribute greatly to successful management – a daily exercise regime and the appropriate stimulation level can go a long way.

Cats and dogs can be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This manifests as panting, pacing, trembling, holding the ears back, holding the mouth in a submissive grin, hiding and/or freezing still. GAD can be treated with medications, just like in humans. However, the best way to treat anxiety is to pair medications with behavioural conditioning and care.  Medication without behavioural management and training does not achieve results.

Many people often joke that their pet cats have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Repetitive meowing, pacing, chewing, suckling, and of course excessive self-grooming can be signs of other, more easily treatable, non-mental health-based conditions. However, once these have been ruled out or treated, you may be looking at a cat with OCD. Cats find certain behaviors can bring relief from pain or stress, and they may continue to pursue them even when the trigger is absent. Treatment might include eliminating stress, and/or increasing predictability of routine (i.e. feeding, play, exercise, socializing).

Advancing age can also bring on mental health challenges.  Perceptions can change with age, sometimes related to impaired hearing and vision.  Loss of good connections within the brain related to the onset of  senility can bring about behaviour changes that can be moderated if not fully managed, and provide the opportunity for much better enjoyment by both you and your pet of those later years. 

As with most health issues, the earlier behaviour changes are noted and addressed, the better likely that management can help with lesser input and greater success.  For animals who exhibit mental illness, mental strife does not have to be permanent. Please mention any of your concerns to your veterinarian. Dogs and cats are resilient and we can help. As mental health advocates are keen to point out: “You are not alone.” And, as this blog article goes to show, that applies to us all.

(Bell Let’s Talk Day is January 29, 2020. Bell will donate 5¢ towards mental health initiatives in Canada for every applicable text, call, tweet, social media video view and use of their Facebook frame or Snapchat filter.)