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Q&A

Pets have mental health problems, too

Laurel Braitman (with Alf, who suffered from canine Alzheimer’s) is the author of “Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves.”

Jill Weinstein

Laurel Braitman (with Alf, who suffered from canine Alzheimer’s) is the author of “Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves.”

About a year before Laurel Braitman headed to MIT for a doctorate in history and anthropology of science, her pet Bernese Mountain dog developed debilitating anxiety. He refused to be left alone, tore up her apartment and once jumped out of a third-floor window in the midst of a panic attack — miraculously landing without serious harm. Desperate to help Oliver and realizing the history of animal mental health hadn’t been well studied, she redirected her doctoral research. Earlier this month, Braitman, now a Californian, published a book resulting from that research, “Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves,” and spoke about it at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.

Q. Why did you decide to study the history of animal mental health?

A. It was in trying to figure out what would help [Oliver] that I stumbled into this world where people were giving their dogs liver-flavored Prozac and taking them to dog psychiatrists — a.k.a. veterinary behaviorists — and I wanted to know how this happened.

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Q. And there are other examples throughout history of mentally troubled animals?

A. This stuff isn’t new. Darwin thought other animals could be insane. It turns out if you try to study the history of insanity in animals, you quickly get into the history of insanity in people. [Animals] have been made into this mirror of us and proxy for us, in terms of how do we come to terms with our unhinged self and figure out what’s going to help us feel better.

Q. What do our mental illnesses have in common with animal ones?

A. Fear and anxiety is something we share with most other animal species. OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] is a manifestation of grooming behavior gone wrong, or gone too much. I wouldn’t say that human PTSD is like dog PTSD, but no two people’s PTSD will be the same either.

Q. What do you think led to Oliver’s breakdown?

A. He came from a family where he was beloved. When he was 4, the teenager in the family had a baby. The entire focus of the family went to the baby. I have no doubt that they loved him, but they dealt with his acting up by isolating him. Then [when his behavior worsened] they gave him up. He developed abandonment issues. He really believed that when I or my [ex-husband] left the house, we were leaving forever.

Q. At some level, it sounds like he reacted rationally to a difficult situation.

A. Just like with people, losing your mind is sometimes the most sane reaction to an insane situation.

Q. Nothing you did helped him?

A. We tried all kinds of things, behavioral modification, exercise, introducing him to other animals. He just couldn’t bear to be alone.

Q. Do you think the way we treat our pets can sometimes lead to mental illness?

A. Dogs are not meant to spend long, long hours waiting alone inside at home with no social interaction and no exercise. Some are fine, but it’s not what they’re built for.

Q. Was coping with Oliver’s illness worthwhile for you in the end?

A. I’m crazy grateful to him. He changed my whole worldview. I went from my dog to tramping around after elephants in Thailand, I went from my dog to talking to people who know friendly whales in Baja, Mexico. I went from my dog into historical archives. This dog propelled me forward in the most spectacular and surprising ways.

Q. It’s been eight years since you had to put Oliver down after his anxiety led to a life-threatening illness, and you haven’t had another dog since. Will you ever?

A. I’m looking now for a rescue. I have some scouts out around at various shelters. I’m open to all breeds, I’m open to medium- to large-size dogs. Confidence would be nice.

Q. Do you feel guilty about how his life turned out?

A. Most of us who have loved a creature that for whatever reason has become disturbed or upset, it’s so hard on you. I spent the last eight years feeling bad. Every person whose life has been touched by one of these creatures feels this way. And it’s not your fault.

Q. Are you worried your new dog might be mentally ill?

A. I know enough to know that I can’t know going into it.

Q. So you’re still a fan of pets?

A. They teach you empathy and they stretch you, and you’re responsible for someone other than yourself. Dogs prepare you for being a better person.

Q. And dealing with their mental illness is just a part of the deal?

A. It’s the cost of living with another animal in your house — which is kind of a remarkable thing we do. Life is lived more richly with other animals, which I treasure, but it also brings up all kinds of issues.

Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com.
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