Exploring mental illness in animals to better understand mental illness in humans

When Laurel Braitman first adopted her dog, Oliver, her excitement and enthusiasm about the new member of her family overcame everything else. Yet six months later, having had the chance to know Oliver through observation and time spent with him, she became increasingly convinced that her dog had a mental illness.

In the video below, Braitman describes how her dog experiences major separation anxiety, suffered from hallucinations, and was eventually diagnosed with a canine compulsive disorder. Through attempting to help her dog overcome his panic and anxiety, Braitman began studying the topic of mental illness in animals other than humans. She poses the question, “Can [other animals] be mentally ill like people, and if so, what does it mean about us?” Braitman came to believe that animals other than humans can suffer from mental illness, and furthermore, that recognizing mental illness in animals can help spread awareness and understanding of mental illness in people.

In her TED Talk, Braitman puts forth the following observation; When humans have a mental illness, it is not uncommon for the mental illness to go undiagnosed until the individual in question approaches a friend or doctor with a description of their symptoms or the worry that they might be ill. Yet if animals other than humans have a mental illness, the human responsible for that animal will need to recognize the symptoms in their pet. Thus, through learning to recognize mental illness or distress in animals, we may better be able to recognize mental illness or distress in our friends and family. Rather than requiring that an individual with a mental illness open up and discuss their illness – which is often personally challenging in the first place but can be especially difficult if the individual in question doesn’t recognize their illness – we can begin relying on friends and family to identify signs of mental illness. Braitman offers the example of parrots who pluck out all of their feathers being studied to better understand trichotillomania in humans. Braitman states that she doesn’t believe that mental illnesses or disorders that occur in animals are exactly the same as those experienced by humans, but also makes the point that neither does she believe that all mental illnesses or disorders in humans are exactly the same either.

Braitman ends her talk by sharing that she really does “believe that even though you can’t know exactly what’s going on in the mind of a pig, or your pug, or your partner, that that shouldn’t stop you from empathizing with them.”

This video may begin with a commercial which was not chosen by or for the benefit of DisAbility Rights Galaxy.

Emily Pate is a third-year student at Seattle University interested in Strategic Communications, learning Spanish, and working with non-profits. Her work for Rooted In Rights is focused on discussing current events in the community of people with disabilities. Her experience previous to Rooted In Rights includes writing broadcasts for KBOO radio in Portland, OR, and managing a neighborhood blog in the Seattle community. In addition to work, Emily enjoys drawing, spending time with her friends and family, and backpacking.