Village Vets Australia

Can Pets Suffer From Mental Illness?

Have you ever wondered if your beloved family pet can suffer from psychological disorders like anxiety or a phobia? And if so, how are such conditions best treated? Dr Anthony Bennett and Dr James Carroll provide their expert opinion.

Australia’s mental health week runs every October and aims to establish community awareness regarding human mental health issues and break down the stigma associated with those who suffer from such issues.  But have you ever wondered if your family pooch could suffer from such an illness?

Just like us, our pets can suffer from liver or heart disease. And, just like us, they can too suffer from mental illness, distress and phobias. However, given that our pets can’t describe to us how they are feeling it is often manifested in abnormal and sometimes destructive behaviours such as destroying backyards or untimely elimination of their bowels.  Some common conditions associated with mental illness seen in family pets include: urine spraying and compulsive over-grooming in cats; separation anxiety, noise phobias and aggression in dogs; and feather picking and over-bonding in birds. Behavioural problems are one of the most common conditions that are seen by vets and their significance shouldn’t be underestimated.

Recently, there has been interest in the media regarding the use of human behavioral modification drugs such as Zanax™ (alprazolam) and Prozac™ (fluoxetine) in the family pet, such as this article published in the Sydney Morning Herald. This has come as quite a surprise to many in the community as understanding of the use of these drugs in humans is frequently stigmatized. It is really important to note that behavioural and anxiety problems are significant issues. The most common reason for surrender or destruction of animals at pounds and shelters is due to behavioural problems. It’s extremely important that this issue isn’t trivialized as anthropomorphism or a plaything of over-indulgent owners.

Pets often present to their local veterinary hospital suffering from debilitating behavioural conditions despite extensive investment in things such as specialist training with animal behavioural experts, pheromone collars and every type of puzzle toy known to man. In these refractory cases, medical therapy with behaviour modification drugs plays a key role. The aim of the therapy is to reduce the animal’s anxiety to facilitate behavioural modification without the stress and worry of the underlying anxiety. We use the drugs to make the dog receptive to the behavioural modification and training (this is the important component of the therapy) – the drugs alone will not work. Over time these drugs can often be reduced or stopped, however there may be a lifelong need for therapy. Many clients report that their pets respond very well to the medication and are happy to see their pet anxiety free and better members of the family.

If you have any concerns over your pet’s behavior or anxiety don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian – these problems need to be addressed promptly before they become ingrained. They will be able to discuss the issues and try and understand the reasons behind the behavior and institute behavioural modification.  Retraining an animal is a time consuming and difficult process and will not simply be solved with one quick trip to the vet or a simple medication. In order to be successful we have to use lots of different tools and resources including referral to veterinary behavioural specialists and professional dog trainers.

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