Family & Pets

The variety of ways that mental health can manifest in pets

The variety of ways that mental health can manifest in pets

Anxiety in our furry and feathered friends can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including a dog who barks incessantly at nothing and a budgie who obsessively plucks out its feathers.

Despite one in five animals suffering from some form of mental illness, not much is known about it.

Dr Kersti Seksel, whose a registered veterinary specialist in animal behaviour and behavioural medicine, spoke to Vet Practice Magazine about anxiety in pets.

“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.”

However, it can be tricky for vets to pick up on anxiety or other mental illnesses in animals as owners aren’t aware that’s what they are.

“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 Doctor Jacqui Ley, who’s a registered vet specialising in behavioural medicine. 

Dr Seksel says that it’s on the staff to tell whether or not the animal is anxious.

“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.

Once the vet is aware that your animal is suffering from mental illness, the next step is treatment.

“We need to help them learn how to cope,” explained Dr Ley. 

“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.”

However, more education is needed so animals can get the help they need.

“The public’s awareness of human mental health issues means that people are looking at it and being more proactive,” explained Ley, but she’s worried that animals are “just written off and then put down as being naughty or vicious”.