Interview with Laurel Braitman – Author of “Animal Madness”

An interview with the author of a fascinating new book about mental illness in animals, including dogs with behavior problems.""

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Dogs can change our lives. Little did Laurel Braitman know how much one Bernese Mountain Dog would change hers. Not long after Laurel had adopted Oliver, the 4-year-old dog began to exhibit anxious behaviors, soon culminating in his exodus from the window of her fourth-story apartment. A young neighbor boy witnessed Oliver’s fifty-foot fall and screamed, “Mom! A dog fell out of the sky!”

Laurel Braitman

The boy and his mother found Oliver lying in a heap inside the concrete stairwell of a basement apartment and rushed him to an animal hospital. The veterinarians said they had never seen a dog survive such a fall.

In the months that followed, Oliver inspired Braitman to change her career path and embark on a journey of exploration into the minds and well-being of animals. She wrote a book about what she learned in the process:  Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves;  it was published in June 2014.

Braitman is a Senior TED fellow and holds a PhD in the History of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We spoke recently about Oliver, dogs and other animals, and mental health.

Braitman writes:

“The first real sign of real trouble I discovered by accident . . . I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left my keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building, I heard a plaintive yowling – not feline or human and not from the National Zoo, a few blocks away. It was a bark that sounded like the squeak of an animal that was too large to squeak and it was coming from our apartment.”

WDJ: What was your process for reaching a diagnosis for Oliver?

LB: I first started noticing strange behaviors after Oliver had been with us for about six months. I hadn’t asked the breeder or his former family about any issues. I didn’t even know separation anxiety existed! But I also didn’t need a name for it initially. It was clear that he was upset when he was being left alone. I think this is true when pathologizing animals and humans in general. What we call it is less important than recognizing that they are suffering and that we need to do something about it.

That was obvious – he was losing it when we would leave the house. I noticed all these behaviors – pacing, drooling, barking incessantly; there were so many signs of anxiety – and I began doing online research. I read a lot of things by veterinary behaviorists and people who were working with veterinary behaviorists. I delved into the online Bernese Mountain Dog forums. I posted some things about Oliver and asked for feedback. I was advised to “ignore the dog when you return home.” That was probably the first thing we tried – and that didn’t work at all.

We started sticking with a schedule, not really as a form of retraining but just because it seemed like the only thing we could do to keep him from destroying stuff and make him less anxious. We went on more walks. At the point when he jumped through the window, he had been with us for about a year.

Until he jumped, I hadn’t realized how extreme his behavior was. The veterinarian who treated Oliver’s injuries said that he should be on Prozac and that we should see a veterinary behaviorist. He gave us a prescription for Valium – with no refills – and said that this was to keep him from jumping out of the window again. Which was not a problem at that time because Oliver was so injured he couldn’t even approach the window for at least a month. He couldn’t walk. I was so distraught.

I took him to a veterinary behaviorist [Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB) are veterinarians who have attained specialist status in veterinary behavior] and she gave him the diagnosis of canine separation anxiety and canine obsessive-compulsive disorder.

WDJ: Did the veterinary behaviorist ever refer to Oliver’s behavior as “mental illness”?

LB: No. This is where I really differ from the veterinarians. People are so scared of anthropomorphizing but I think that it’s kind of silly. Why wouldn’t we call what he went through – separation anxiety – the same thing whether the same symptoms were seen in a child or a gorilla or a wombat or a dog? I don’t think canine separation anxiety is the same as separation anxiety in children, but I also don’t think that one child’s separation anxiety is the same as the next child’s. I feel quite comfortable saying that Oliver had a type of mental illness. Do I think it’s the same as other dogs or as people? No, of course not.

WDJ: Veterinary behaviorists, as well as most veterinarians and trainers, usually refer to “behavior problems” or “aberrant behavior” rather than “mental illness.” Do you think the hesitancy in labeling certain behavior problems as mental illness is due to the stigma attached to the label itself? 

LB: Stigma, yes. Mainly, though, it’s a fear of anthropomorphism and projection, because when you say “mental illness” that infers a thought process that we can’t confirm in another animal.

Laurel Braitman Animal Madness

That said, we diagnose mental illness in humans with whom we can’t communicate through behavioral observation. That’s how many children are diagnosed.

It’s funny. Say you’re a dog owner and you go to a veterinary behaviorist with your dog. The behaviorist says [your dog’s problem] is an issue of behavioral training. That is so much less daunting than having them tell you that your dog has a mental disorder – even though that’s what they’re actually “telling” you when they prescribe a psychopharmaceutical and recommend behavior therapy, which is often what happens for a person in the same situation.

I guess I’m not particularly interested in what mental illness is or isn’t. It’s anything that keeps you from whatever your version of normal is. Whether it’s caused by a brain tumor, a pollutant in the environment, some endogenous thing, or triggered by who knows what – the result is the same: it’s something that keeps someone from being himself, from things that he enjoys, or from living a healthy, happy life.

WDJ: If mental illness is deemed to be a medical condition, it might relieve some of the guilt some people feel about having a difficult dog. Not to mention feeling like a failure . . . .

LB: Exactly! “If only I was a better owner, trainer, etc …” That was my overwhelming feeling during this experience. I was tortured by my inability to help my dog.

If you have an anxious dog – or even a dog who is ill with cancer – you feel so bad! You are their sole caretaker in the world and I think that kind of sadness and pressure haunts us all.

WDJ: You write about how, two years after Oliver leaped from the window, he developed a case of gastric torsion during a severe panic attack while you were traveling, and how despite extraordinary efforts to help him, ultimately, you made the heartbreaking decision to let him go. You write:

“We called the veterinarian back and told her to put Oliver down. She assured us that he wouldn’t feel any pain, that he was already unconscious. I made her promise that she would cradle his head and stroke him while he died, that she would call him ‘Beast’ and tell him that we loved him. And then I asked, lamely, ‘Do you think we’re bad people?’ “

LB: I was traumatized by him. If I had been less traumatized, I would have gotten another dog a long time ago. I sometimes think about how many dogs I haven’t helped because I was so saddled with guilt by this one. On the other hand, I have learned so much; I will never be that naïve about another creature again.

WDJ: I know you didn’t write the copy on book jacket and I realize it was probably put there to capture interest, but there is a statement about Oliver suggesting that he may have even attempted suicide. Do animals have to have a concept of what it means to live in order to have a concept of wanting to end that life? Or is it a by-product of other pain/stress that results in further harm?

LB:don’t think Oliver was consciously trying to kill himself; I think he was in a panic. But I do think that many people commit suicide that way, too. When you’re in such overwhelming discomfort, you just do whatever you can do to end that discomfort. In humans, this can be a rash act, not fully thought out. But if we’re going to call that scenario ‘suicide’ in people, we might also call that suicide in animals.

The issue here is that it’s impossible to prove. There’s an entire chapter on suicide in the book. I don’t want to say that animals do it or not; what I want to say is that some animals probably do it like some people do it, in that they choose a state away from the state that they are in. Animals do that all the time. If they’re hot, they move to someplace cool. If you’re suffering emotionally, of course you move away from the discomfort – and that may have fatal consequences. Maybe you become so uncomfortable that you’d do anything to end that discomfort and that kills you; I think some people do just that.

 Was Oliver thinking, “If I jump through this window I’m going to die”? No, anxious dogs do what anxious dogs are capable of – and he was a big, powerful dog, so jumping out of a closed window was something he could do.

When it comes to other animals, such dolphins and whales, or African grey parrots, or macaws who use tools, who do have a sense of self, who probably have a clear concept of past, present, and future, who knows? We should give them the benefit of the doubt, absolutely.

WDJ: There’s been a shift in the past 50 years in the understanding of the neuro-biological conceptions of the brain; future research will be exciting and no doubt delve deeper into the mind/body connection and the neuromolecular vision of the brain. Where do you see this exploration going?

LB: It’s so fascinating but it is also as mysterious as ever. Contrary to much public opinion, many neuroscientists I consulted argued that current studies don’t prove that specific parts of the brain are associated with certain emotions.

You know the studies where individuals are put into an imaging apparatus to examine how different parts of the brain “light up” when the person has certain types of thoughts? Or even the dogs in the MRI who are shown their owners and their brain reactions recorded? What those studies show is analogous to the experience of walking down a dark street at night and seeing one house with all the lights on with lots of people inside and lots of noise – you could hypothesize that it looks like a party, but you can’t say what kind of party it is. Is it a funeral? A cocktail party? Is the house up for sale? Did someone call the cops?

We can see activity in different parts of the brain. That may mean that such a region is where we process pleasure, and dogs’ pleasure centers may be similar, but it’s hard to know for sure. We’re creating maps of the brain that are interesting, but they are not yet showing us specifically what’s going on. The topic of neuroscience and comparative neurology between humans and other animals is very complicated and there is very little consensus. Eventually I threw up my hands and just decided to present some of the debate in the book.

You know, there is still a lot of discussion among neuroscientists about what an emotion actually is, even in humans! But I think that many of us spend so much time with other creatures that we can use our own animal natures to puzzle it out. It seems very clear when we spend time with a dog that we can tell if the dog is happy or upset or anxious. Sure, that’s projecting – and that’s using human language to describe it.

WDJ: You devote a chapter to the use of pharmaceuticals in animals. One of the things we can’t know is how a given medication will affect an individual dog. With animals, we have to rely on the science of how the medications work within the body and our potentially inadequate skills of observation. In light of this and your research, do you think we underuse or overuse behavior-modifying medications in our treatment of animals?

LB: I know a lot of very compassionate dog owners who have used pharmaceuticals as a bridge – say, to reduce a dog’s anxiety long enough so they can work with a trainer.

As a society, we often overuse medication, but we live in a world where a lot of us are ill-suited to our daily lives, and pharmaceuticals are one of the things that are getting us through the day – humans and dogs! We are not built to sit in front of a screen for 12 hours a day. Both dogs and humans are so social, and we are living much more disconnected lives than we should be.

All of the things you often do to make a dog feel better (exercise, more time outside with humans and other animals, stimulating games and puzzles, a satisfying job, structure, and a healthy routine) are things that might actually work for people. I think the fact that we are missing so many of those things is problematic and one of the ways we are dealing with it is by taking drugs. On that level, I think we should be changing our lives, both humans and dogs.

The drugs can facilitate treatment. But in the long run, they may be overused. Without changing the stressors and the things that trigger certain behaviors in humans and animals, we’re not going to get better.

Medications can be used as a stopgap. If you have a zoo gorilla who is clinically depressed and won’t engage with his troop mates and has stopped eating and can’t be sent back to Africa, then the ethical thing to do is to medicate that ape. It’s just bad that the drugs are used as an excuse when something else could be changed to make him happier.

WDJ: You cite many examples of mental illness or disturbance in animals in the book; it’s fascinating.

LB: Animals are all individuals and have varying susceptibilities to mental problems. Learning that changed me. When I observe pigeons now, I wonder about the individuality of each one: Which one is the scaredy pigeon? Which one is the brave one? Certainly there is a deer in the Marin Headlands who is more of a risk-taker than the others, and probably one who has a tendency toward obsession. Take birds that stare at their reflections and throw themselves into windows – not all birds in the group are doing this.

WDJ: I’m reminded of the popular adage in the dog world that one person’s behavioral nightmare is another’s ideal pet. While you certainly couldn’t characterize Oliver as an ideal pet, he gave you an immeasurable gift and, in turn, you are passing that gift forward to all animals by bringing to light these very important concepts.

LB: I think I’ve always loved the difficult animals best, because they stretch us and they force us to challenge ourselves in often uncomfortable ways that we never would have otherwise. If I didn’t have a dog – one that was literally jumping out of my house – I wouldn’t have been forced to confront the extremes of the canine mind. I would have been content with my rather boring preexisting view of dogs.

Before Oliver, I never doubted that other animals had emotions, but mental illness was something I never would have grappled with without him. It changed my view of other animals, and people too. I owe Oliver absolutely everything.

Animal Madness was published in June by Simon & Schuster and is available wherever books are sold.

Laurel Braitman is at work on a new book – and she’s decided she’s finally ready to adopt another dog. Find out more about Braitman and her research at animalmadness.com.

Barbara Dobbins, a former dog trainer, writes about dogs and studies canine ethology. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her Border Collie, Duncan.

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