Mental health issues get a lot of attention in humans – but what about our pets?
It seems that we acknowledge more mental health problems in dogs and cats than ever before. The most common dog “mental health” problems are anxiety, hyperactivity and aggression.
These problems have been recently discussed in great detail at veterinary meeting and many treatments (including medications) have become available.
I’d like to share some information about mental health with you today.
Aggression in Dogs
Aggression in dogs is defined as a threatening or harmful behaviour directed toward another living creature. This includes snarling, growling, snapping, nipping, biting and lunging. Dogs that show such behaviour are not abnormal; they are merely exhibiting normal species-typical behaviour that is incompatible with human lifestyle (and safety). There are many reasons why a dog will act aggressively toward strangers or even his owner.
The first step, when attempting to find out why your dog is being aggressive, is to take him to your veterinarian. Some veterinarians will visit you at your home – but dogs tend to be more aggressive on “their” territory.
If there’s no medical cause for the aggression, your veterinarian may refer you to a behaviourist, who will then obtain a full behavioural history and recommend therapy.
Even if treatment appears to be successful, you should always be on guard. The frequency and severity of aggression may be reduced but, in most cases, aggression cannot be eliminated completely. You must weigh the risks of keeping an aggressive dog against the benefits. Remember, safety for yourself and people around you is the primary concern!
In the course of a veterinary examination, your veterinarian will determine if there is a medical reason underlying your dog’s aggressiveness. For instance, a dog with neck pain may show aggression when pulled by the collar.
Once medical causes have been ruled out, your veterinarian will refer you to a behaviourist. At the behaviourist’s, you’ll be asked to answer many detailed questions regarding your dog’s behaviour. The session may last a couple of hours. An accurate description of your dog’s behaviour is necessary. Keeping a journal is helpful. You should note:
- What elicits the aggression
- How often it occurs
- To whom it is directed
- The specific behaviours
- The dog’s postures at the time
Videotaping your dog’s behaviour is helpful for the behaviourist, but don’t get hurt while making the video. Answers to the many questions asked can lead the behaviourist to establish the cause of the aggression, and then outline an individualized approach to its treatment. The behaviourist will also provide a professional opinion of the risk involved.
Aggression is influenced by several factors, including: genetic predisposition, early experience, maturation, sex, age, size, hormonal status, physiological state and external stimuli. Behaviourists use a classification system based on patterns of behaviour and the circumstances in which they occur. This is done to determine the dog’s motivation and the cause of the behaviour. The classification is as follows:
- Dominance-related aggression is one of the most common types of canine aggression that behaviourists treat. The aggressive acts are directed toward one or several family members or other household pets. Dogs are pack animals, and they relate to humans as members of their own species and pack members.
- Territorial aggression is directed toward approaching animals or people outside of the pack in defence of a dog’s area (home, room or yard), owner or fellow pack member.
- Inter-male aggression between adult males usually involves territorial or dominance disputes. Inter-female aggression occurs most frequently between adult females living in the same household.
· Predatory aggression is directed toward anything that the dog considers prey, usually other species, but sometimes any quick-moving stimulus, like a car or bike.
- Pain-induced aggression is caused by a person or animal that causes pain. It often occurs when a person attempts to touch a painful area or when injections are given.
- Fear-induced aggression occurs when people or animals approach a fearful dog. This is common when the dog cannot escape, and is sometimes seen when an owner uses severe punishment. Active, unpredictable children may also stimulate this type of aggression.
- Maternal aggression is directed toward anyone that approaches a bitch with puppies or in false pregnancy.
- Redirected aggression occurs when a dog that is aggressively motivated redirects the aggression from the source to another. For example, a dog that is barking at the door may redirect his aggression onto an owner that is pulling him back. Dominant dogs often redirect onto subordinates.
Treating aggressive behaviour may involve a combination of behaviour modification techniques (habituation, counterconditioning and desensitization), drug therapy, surgery (such as neutering/spaying), avoidance and management (such as leash or head halter). Each case is unique, and the success of treatment varies depending on the diagnosis and in accord with your capability, motivation and schedule.
Even with successful treatment, however, there is no guarantee that the aggressive behaviour won’t return. In most cases, the frequency and severity of aggressive behaviour can be reduced but the aggressive behaviour cannot be eliminated completely. The best that may be hoped for is to reduce the probability of aggression. You must weigh the risks of keeping an aggressive dog against the benefits.
Dogs are social animals that form strong bonds with people, so it is not surprising that they may feel somewhat anxious when separated from their social group. Most dogs adapt well to the typical daily separation from their owners. Unfortunately, problems can arise when an overly dependent dog develops a dysfunctionally strong attachment to her owners. The dog with separation anxiety is distinguished by signs of distress when left alone and over-attachment when the owner is present.
Separation anxiety may be manifested as destruction of the owner’s property and other behaviours that may be harmful for the dog or annoying for people sharing the dog’s immediate environment.
It is important to realize that dogs with separation anxiety are not doing these things to get even with the owner for leaving, out of boredom, or due to lack of obedience training. These dogs are not being destructive out of “spite” or “anger.
” They are truly distressed when left behind.
Consider instead that the dog’s dependence on the owner is so great that she becomes anxious when the owner leaves. The dog must find an outlet for this anxiety, and her methods of doing so may cause considerable damage. Also consider that, no matter how flattering a dog’s constant attention to her owners may seem, it is not fair to the dog to allow her to be so stressed by the owner’s absence that she must resort to one of these unwanted behaviours to alleviate inner tension.
For some dogs, the anxiety associated with being left alone becomes evident to their owners soon after they join the household. In some cases, dogs may be genetically predisposed to anxiety but inappropriate or insufficient socialization experiences during the juvenile period is the most likely cause. For some dogs, no initiating trigger can be identified. Symptoms of separation anxiety may develop gradually over time or may appear in full-blown form the first time they are left alone.
The onset of separation anxiety sometimes occurs after the dog is exposed to an experience that disrupts its social bond. This can occur when owners board the dog for vacation or change their work schedule. It may also occur when a household member leaves or dies, or when the dog is relocated to a new house or household.
Overly indulgent owners may promote separation distress in predisposed dogs. Owners of dogs that show separation distress are often nurturing, empathetic people who indulge their dog. They allow the dog to follow them around the house and encourage the exuberant welcome the dog gives them when they return home. Somewhat less-nurturing (but by no means neglectful) owners may help instill independence in the dog thus circumventing the worst throes of the problem and permitting its gradual resolution.
Separation anxiety may be confused with other separation-related behaviour problems that occur in the owner’s absence. A lack of stimulation leads some dogs to engage in excessive and destructive “exploring,” barking and other nuisance behaviour. This type of problem does not necessarily indicate a dysfunctional bond with the owner.
It is widely held that dogs with a dysfunctional background (adopted from shelters, puppy mills, pet stores, dogs that have had multiple owners or traumatic handling early in life) are more prone to separation anxiety. Whether this is because these dogs were relinquished or abused, or whether the condition emerged after their abandonment, is not known for certain. Certainly, inadequate early socialization is a concern with puppy mill and pet store dogs, but not all dogs acquired from these facilities develop separation anxiety.
It also has been reported that mixed breed dogs appear to suffer from separation anxiety more commonly than purebred dogs. Since more mixed breed dogs are obtained from shelters than purebred dogs, this raises a question: Does exposure to a shelter environment predispose some dogs to develop separation anxiety or are more mixed breed dogs relinquished to a shelter as a result of pre-existing separation related issues?
It is possible that some dogs are genetically predisposed to develop stronger than normal attachment to members of their social group. Logically, we would predict that these dogs would be more submissive in temperament. Such dogs may belong to breeds that have been genetically selected to form overly tight bonds with owners in order to perform a “job,” such as hunting or herding.
Dogs that develop separation anxiety are often young dogs. However, geriatric dogs may develop separation anxiety in response to physical discomfort accompanying old age. These dogs become less independent and more emotionally attached to the owners as a consequence of their infirmity.
Unwanted behavioural signs of separation anxiety are only seen when the owner is absent, or when the dog is prevented from being close to the owner (at night, for instance). Under such circumstances, a needy dog is in a high state of anxiety because she wants to be with her owner and is prevented from doing so. Dogs, like people, cannot stay in a high state of anxiety for long, and must do something to relieve the tension.
To reduce the tension, dogs may engage in destructive behaviour, house soiling, and distress vocalization. Other signs may include a reduced activity level, depression, loss of appetite, ritualized pacing, aggression when the owner leaves (mouthing, growling, nipping, or body blocking), excessive grooming, diarrhea, vomiting, panting and salivation. Signs of over-attachment when the owner is home include excessive following behaviour, anxious behaviours associated with signals that the owner is preparing to depart, and exuberant greetings.
Excessive chewing, digging and scratching tends to occur in areas near doors and windows (“barrier frustration”). Damage in such areas is virtually diagnostic of separation anxiety. These areas represent exit routes for the dog as she attempts to reunite herself with the owner or, at least, to escape the loneliness. If the dog is confined to a crate, or her movements are restricted by a gate, destruction is usually centered around the crate door or the gate itself. The dog may seriously injure herself during these escape attempts. Attempts to free herself from barriers may result in broken nails or teeth, a bloody mouth, or more extensive injuries from tearing through glass and wood. Dogs may also destroy property that carries the owner’s scent, such as bedding, furniture, clothing, or shoes.
Barking, howling and whining are other common signs of separation anxiety. Distress vocalization and active seeking behaviour occur when many social animals are separated from their companions. Such distress vocalizations represent the dog’s attempt to reunite the social unit. Excessive vocalization may occur primarily at the time of the owner’s departure or may continue throughout the duration of the owner’s absence. Owners are often unaware that their dog is distressed by the departure and it is only when neighbours complain about the excessive barking or howling that they become aware that their dog has a separation problem.
Dogs with separation anxiety may become so distressed in their owners’ absence that they urinate or defecate in the house. When this occurs only in the owner’s absence, such “inappropriate” elimination is not indicative of a loss of house training but rather is a physiological response to the extreme distress the dog is experiencing from being alone. House soiling typically occurs within 30 minutes of the owner’s departure as the dog becomes more anxious.
With worldwide recognition of attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD) in children, many people are now wondering whether their overly boisterous, easily distractible dogs are suffering from a similar disorder.
The answer is probably not, but there are rare cases when the evidence does seem to support such a diagnosis. If your veterinarian tells you that hyperactivity in dogs is commonplace, he or she may be confusing ADHA with over-activity or hyper-reactivity, which are different. Some of the conditions that can be confused with hyperactivity include:
- Normal Puppy Behaviour. Many young pups appear overly active, disobedient and uncontrollable. That’s because they are. Young pups take a while to learn voice commands and appropriate responses. In fact, they have so much energy and exuberance they can barely contain themselves during instructional sessions.
- For this reason, educating young pups should be done in short 15-minute sessions with realistic expectations of the level of attention that can be achieved. Expect your puppy to “crash” after a bout of physical activity (or a rigorous training session).
- Overactive Adult Dogs. Certain breeds, especially those developed for fieldwork, seem as if they’re in perpetual motion. In the typical domestic situation, such dogs may appear to have boundless energy even as they approach late middle age. These dogs are displaying high activity levels, a quality for which they were originally developed. Normal everyday life is just not enough for such highly tuned individuals. Owners often find that they have to engage in high energy, extra-curricular work like fly ball or agility training to help such dogs blow off excess steam.
- Pseudo-hyperactivity. Some dogs of medium-to-high activity level may appear to be hyperactive or overactive if they don’t get enough physical or mental stimulation. This cabin fever-like situation arises in dogs that spend many hours confined, sometimes in crates or in single rooms of the house, while both “parents” work and later sleep. These dogs may behave as if they are trying to cram 24 hours of fun into a one- or two-hour window of time, which is close to the truth.
For such dogs, reorganizing their lifestyle to provide appropriate exercise and entertainment can go a long way toward resolving this version of “hyperactivity.”
- Highly Reactive Dogs. Certain breeds of dog are more reactive than others. Breeds that might have been considered reactive have changed somewhat since early days but, nonetheless, reactive dogs still abound. The reactive dog, as opposed to the hyperactive dog, is one that reacts to every miniscule event in his environment with extraordinary (and only slowly waning) bursts of energy. If an icicle falls, leaves blow, or footsteps are heard on the path, such dogs go practically berserk, careening around the house, leaping up on couches, barking wildly, flailing and jumping in extraordinary kinetic displays and never seems to slow down. For some of these dogs, the pseudo-over activity explanation may be part of the problem, too.
- Attention-seeking Behaviour. Dogs can learn to behave in almost any conceivable way if they are rewarded for it by their owners. If you pay attention to a dog only when he is barking, jumping, or otherwise making a nuisance of himself, that’s the behaviour you will encourage. Basically, you are reinforcing unwanted behaviours. And remember, any attention is better than no attention for a needy dog – even when its in the form of scolding. The way to reverse learned “hyperactive” behaviour is to reverse the reward schedule – paying attention to your dog when he is being good and ignoring him when he is misbehaving. Sometimes a bridging stimulus, such as a duck-call, will help focus a dog’s attention prior to you taking no further notice of him. Employing this technique will expedite the results of attention-withdrawal.
- ADHD. Dogs this condition must (by definition) show poor attention span and have high levels of motor activity despite an apparently appropriate environment and lifestyle. In the home setting and in the clinic, they are virtually in constant motion, jumping around and reacting to even the mildest environmental perturbation. The only time they’re quiet is when they’re asleep – and even then they may twitch a lot. The energy level of these dogs is practically breathtaking both for the dog and observer. If a dog with a provisional diagnosis of hyperactivity comes into a veterinarian’s consulting room and falls asleep on the floor, it does not have ADHD. A fairly easy way for a veterinarian to make a provisional diagnosis of hyperactivity is to see how he feels after the consultation. If he is glad to get out of the room – because the dog’s behaviour was so difficult to endure – then the dog may have hyperactivity. If a veterinarian finds he can tolerate the dog quite well, then the dog probably does not have the condition. Dogs with true hyperactivity may not be presented with that as the description of their behaviour. Instead, owners may report that the dog runs in circles, is always jumping around like a kangaroo, or barks incessantly. Aggression and pushy attention-seeking behaviour are other behaviours often associated with hyperactivity.
The true test of ADHD is to give the dog a stimulant, say methylphenidate (Ritalin®) or D-amphetamine (Dexedrine®), under controlled clinical conditions, and to observe changes in heart rate, respiratory rate, and behaviour. For a dog with ADHD, all these parameters will be reduced.
Long-term management of these patients is by appropriate management coupled with treatment with psychostimulants. Longer acting stimulants are useful because of the dog’s rapid metabolic rate and exceptional detoxification abilities. While Ritalin® and Dexedrine® are sometimes effective, newer drugs, like Adderall®, may prove even more effective.
Hyperactivity (or ADHD), as we currently understand it, is a genetic condition. It is rare and can only be diagnosed by a veterinarian or a behaviourist. If your dog seems hyperactive, you should first look at lifestyle issues, his environment, management, and rewards. Most likely one or more of these factors will underlie the “hyperactive” behaviour – but if not, ADHD remains a remote possibility.
Because our pets cannot speak, we don’t really know what they are thinking. We must base our interpretations of their emotional state on their behaviour – what they do in certain situations and under specific circumstances.
When a person experiences the death of a human loved one, we may know they feel grief based on what they say. Very often, however, it is how they react, what they do that tells us they are suffering. They lose their focus, become listless and disoriented, don’t eat and become disinterested in what is happening around them. They may cry or go without sleep or they may sleep more.
An animal that is experiencing the loss of another animal companion may react similarly. “Some animals can actually become depressed when they lose a loved one,” says Monique D. Chretien, MSc, AHT, Animal behaviour consultant. “They show symptoms similar to humans such as loss of interest in their favourite activities and sleeping more than usual.
However, sometimes dogs hide and sleep more than usual when they are ill, so you should consult with your veterinarian before seeing a behaviourist if your dog exhibits symptoms such as these.”
Your dog may lose his appetite, become disoriented, or become more clingy. If the deceased pet was taken to a veterinarian to be euthanized, the grieving dog may sit at the window for days watching for her return. Animal behaviourists commonly call this emotional state, separation anxiety. On the surface, the pet’s behaviour is similar to that of a person experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a Companion Animal Mourning Project in 1996. The study found that 46% of cats ate less than usual after the death of another cat companion. In some extreme cases, the cat actually starved to death. About 70% of cats meowed more than normal or meowed less. Study respondents indicated that surviving cats changed the quantity and location of sleep. More than half the surviving pets became more affectionate and clingy with their caregivers. Overall, the study revealed that 65% of cats exhibited four or more behavioural changes after losing a pet companion.
If your dog shows signs that she is grieving the loss of an animal or human family member, provide her with more attention and affection. “Try to take her mind off it by engaging her in a favourite activity,” says Chretien. If she enjoys human company, invite friends that she likes to visit and spend time with her. Use environmental enrichment techniques such as balls filled with treats to help keep her busy. Hide toys at her favourite spots for her to find during the day.
If your dog is too depressed over the loss, she may not respond to extra activity right away. The old saying, “Time heals all wounds,” has meaning for your dog, too. “Time is one thing that may help,” says Chretien.
If your dog is barking more or whining, distract her. Don’t give her treats to distract her or you might unintentionally reinforce the barking. “Giving attention during any behaviour will help to reinforce it so be sure you are not reinforcing a behaviour that you don’t like,” says Chretien. “Give attention at a time when your dog is engaging in behaviours that you do like, such as when she is resting quietly or
watching the birds. As the pain of the loss begins to subside, so should the vocalizing as long as it is related to the grieving process.”
You may also want to consult with your veterinarian regarding drug therapy to help decrease your dog’s anxiety, advises Chretien.
If you are thinking about adding another pet, wait until you and your surviving pet have adjusted to the loss. Forcing your dog to get to know a newcomer will only add stress to her already anxiety-ridden emotional state. And be patient. Your dog may miss her companion as much as you do.