Barking mad: pet mental health

pet mental health

Even though one in five animals suffers from some form of mental illness, there’s still a bit of catching up to do within the veterinary profession when it comes to recognising and treating these pet mental health conditions. Kathy Graham reports

A cat who chases her tail and never uses her litter; a dog who barks incessantly at his reflection and snaps at flies, and a budgie who obsessively plucks out her feathers—these are just some of the many ways mental illness can manifest in pets. 

Dr Jacqui Ley is a registered veterinarian specialising in behavioural medicine with over 15 years’ experience in this field dealing “mainly with anxiety disorders ranging from the quite mild to very incapacitating”.

Dr Kersti Seksel, a registered veterinary specialist in animal behaviour and behavioural medicine, runs the Sydney Animal Behaviour Service, a premier behavioural medicine practice. She also says that the animals she sees—mainly dogs, cats and birds—have some form of anxiety disorder. “We see cases of separation anxiety, so dogs who can’t be left alone. They can become quite destructive and bark and howl a lot. Often, they’ll also pace excessively. We see animals who cannot deal with people or aren’t good with members of their own species. We see cases of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where the animal will self-mutilate or spin. And we certainly see animals with PTSD, where something really traumatic has happened to them. These are not cases that training alone can help, regardless of what people may be told.”

Since animals and people share the same neurology and anatomy and experience the same basic range of emotions, it’s no wonder, Dr Seksel says, that “every disease, virtually, that we can get, animals can get”—some of them caused by organic changes in the brain, some by traumatic experiences and some by genetic bad luck.

Not only that, the rate of mental illness in animals is the same as in humans—that is one in five suffer from a mental condition.

So it is all the more surprising that Drs Ley and Seksel are two of just three registered veterinarian specialists in behavioural medicine operating in the whole of Australia (the other one is Dr Gabrielle Carter). Does this reflect too little appreciation of the importance of animal psychiatry and psychology?

“I guess we’ve been a little bit behind the times, but we are working very hard to catch up,” Dr Ley says. “Certainly, there are more and more vets who are becoming aware of and interested in behaviour medicine.”

“I think the biggest problem,” adds Dr Seksel, “is the subject is not taught at veterinary schools—unlike in many vet schools in the US, the UK and Europe. So, when vets graduate, they’ve had lectures in ophthalmology, dermatology but virtually no lectures in behavioural medicine. I think it’s changing but I think it’s very hard to take something seriously if you’ve never been taught about it at university.” 

“I guess we’ve been a little bit behind the times, but we are working very hard to catch up. Certainly, there are more and more vets who are becoming aware of and interested in behaviour medicine.” 

Dr Jacqui Ley, president, AVBIG

“It’s something that would be good if the universities were doing more of,” agrees Dr Ley. “But certainly, we’re making sure that there are lots of opportunities for vets to learn about and deal with mental health issues in animals when they graduate.”

Indeed, those with an interest in the topic can avail themselves of postgraduate study, for example membership or fellowship specialty training through the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists, regular continuing education courses, training webinars and more. “So these vets have got an introduction and a greater awareness and can certainly diagnose and treat more straightforward problems. Though when things start to get complicated, seeking out a specialist is the way to go,” says Dr Ley.

Some red flags to a vet that an animal may have a mental health issue include reports by the owner of unusually aggressive behaviour, for example, unprovoked biting; frequent escape attempts, destructive tendencies, and noise complaints from neighbours. “Oftentimes though, people won’t present the animal’s behaviour as the primary issue; they’ll often mention it as part of other things,” says Dr Ley. But if a vet is unsure, simple observation of the animal in the consultation room will often suffice.

“If you’ve got well-trained staff, they’ll be able to tell you a lot about that dog’s behaviour—whether it’s frightened or stressed—just by observing its body language in the waiting room, how active it is, how it reacts to noise, how easily it comes to the vet,” says Dr Seksel.

Also as part of the consultation, the vet should ask their client about their pet’s behaviour—not just problem behaviour but also what their pet was like as a baby animal.

Once a diagnosis is made, treatment usually entails creating a safe environment for the animal where they can be taught how to regulate their emotional state. “With the environment we’re looking to calm things down, to make things reliable, consistent, to avoid situations that the animal finds scary,” says Dr Ley. “This is just the beginning because then we need to help them learn how to cope. In some cases, medication—including supplements and pheromones—helps calm and settle the animal so they can actually start to think as opposed to just react to what they find scary.”

The good news is that most of these problems can be treated and managed very well, on the proviso they’re picked up sooner rather than later. Whether this occurs depends first and foremost on the actions of pet owners. Although Dr Ley believes “the public’s awareness of human mental health issues means that people are looking at it and being more proactive”, she worries that many animals are still “just written off and then put down as being naughty or vicious”. Dr Seksel similarly feels that more and more people are open to the possibility their pet might be mentally unwell but worries that even the best intentioned won’t recognise “the more subtle signs of anxiety, things like lip licking or yawning or shaking off as if wet, which are all normal behaviours—but it depends on the context in which they occur”.

Predictably, both Drs Ley and Seksel are strong advocates for more education—of vets and of owners. Notwithstanding the work of the Australian Veterinary Behaviour Interest Group (AVBIG), a terrific initiative of the Australian Veterinary Association which seeks to educate the veterinary profession and the general public—and of which Dr Ley is current president—“there’s lots more that could be done,” says Dr Seksel. “Organisations like Beyond Blue and SANE and Black Dog Institute have really lifted the focus on mental health in people, and maybe we need something similar for animals too.”



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