Mental Disorders Aren’t Just for Humans Anymore

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Have you ever felt like your dog was depressed? Your cat was paranoid? Your ferret was schizophrenic? Don’t write off your suspicions as wild delusions just yet.

A recent report from veterinarians and scientists at the Lackland Air Force Base has shed light upon a problem facing military dogs – they, like human soldiers, can return from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. They display irritability, jittery behavior, and anti-social tendencies and are not easily cured of these combat ills.

It’s not an entirely new discovery that animals will display what were once thought of as generally human qualities, but this report brings up questions about the nature of human disorders and psychological issues. Namely:  what issues does my pet have?

A big chunk of the U.S. population owns some sort of pet, be it a cat, dog, parakeet or naked mole rat, and every pet owner I’ve known (a.k.a. every person I’ve known) personifies their pet. “Mittens is smart! Fido is bashful! Mr. Me-ow-gi is wise!” And it’s not baseless – animals certainly seem to have distinct personalities. It’s only natural that we’ll start diagnosing our pets like we diagnose ourselves.

How many times have you been on WebMD because you were pretty sure you had some odd ailment that was probably going to kill you? (How many times did the ailment turn out to be hypochondria? Most times.) Children are getting diagnosed with ADHDat high rates, and pharmaceutical companies have a pill for everything these days. This is not to say they’re not real diseases or disorders – it’s simply that we are eager to label our issues, physical and mental, and our pets are next.

I’m pretty sure my dog could be diagnosed with depression:  he’s put on a few ounces, lies around a lot, and overeats at every opportunity. He’s also a pug, and there is nothing more naturally depressed than a pug face. I’ve met a few felines that seem to be stricken with agoraphobia – they get very uncomfortable in wide-open spaces and just want to nestle into an empty oatmeal tube. The next time my friend’s cat attacks me and then immediately tries to snuggle, I’ll change my description of him from “moody little jerk” to “bipolar manic-depressive.”

I suppose it’s best to leave all the analysis to the professionals. Just like with WebMD, it’s sometimes a little more hype than reality when a person’s emotions dictate their diagnoses, and that probably is the case when we laypeople label our pets’ problems. Maybe my dog doesn’t have depression – maybe he’s just a portly, middle-aged pug. Maybe canine post-traumatic stress is more Pavlovian conditioning than it is PTSD in the clinical sense of the term. Maybe my friend’s cat is really just a moody little jerk. I don’t know – I’m not an animal psychiatrist.

But if animal psychiatry is your chosen field, you may just be about to experience a boom in your industry.

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