It sure seems like it. She lies around all day, barely moving. Then at any given time she races through the house pursuing nothing at all. Afterward she lies back down, immobilized again. It looks an awful lot like rapid cycling.
Image via Shutterstock
I’m not going to get into the debate of whether animals have emotions; of course animals have emotions, and they act on them. Our cat, Maggie, could snub you like no other. Another cat, Shaker, would be mortally offended if you stuck a treat on the top of her head and made “beep beep” noises. Our dog, Bridget, has deep anxiety around strangers, both human and canine. She has been known to wet herself, or my husband’s shoes. Polar bears can experience boredom. I have it on good authority that sheep can hold a grudge.
But can animals experience mental illness? The BBC recently examined this question in an article by Shreya Dasgupta. The article is long and rather technical, cites genetic studies I’m not capable of summarizing, and uses words like “telomere.” But the Beeb’s resounding answer to the question is yes. Not only can animals feel emotion, they can also suffer from mental disorders. The report says:
To our eyes, many animals seem to suffer from forms of mental illness. Whether they are pets, or animals kept in ill-managed zoos and circuses, they can become excessively sad, anxious, or even traumatised….There is growing evidence that many animals can suffer from mental health disorders similar to those seen in humans.
It was decades ago when I first heard about polar bears on Prozac due to their obsessive pacing or repetitively swimming back and forth. I did wonder how the vets calculated the dosage – by body weight or brain size? Of course, rather than psychotropics, what the bears really needed was more appropriate-sized enclosures.
Stress and social deprivation seem to be two of the factors that can bring on mental illness, particularly depression or PTSD in animals. Dogs that serve in combat zones have been known to have trouble adjusting to civilian life. And the death of an animal’s relative or beloved human companion has been anecdotally linked to profound grief and even death.
The BBC notes that all the evidence we have for animal mental illness comes from pets, captive animals, and research specimens:
That probably reflects our own preferences for certain animals. “It’s the animals that we find very charismatic, like elephants or chimpanzees, or animals that we share our homes with, like dogs,” that command our attention, says animal behaviour expert Marc Bekoff.
But do wild animals really suffer from mental disorders? It’s practically impossible to tell. For one thing, wild animals cannot bare their souls to therapists. For many reclusive wild animals, we know so little of what is normal behavior that we would be hard pressed to identify abnormal responses to environmental stressors.
Still, the experts say, even invertebrates like octopi and honeybees seem to suffer from, if not what we would call mental illness, at least maladaptive reactions to trauma.
Severe psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia seem to go with higher intelligence. Octopi are actually quite smart. But again, how can you tell whether a dolphin is hallucinating? It may be that animals with extreme mental illness are weeded out by evolution, as their erratic behavior may lead to early death and loss of the ability to pass on their genes.
Is this true for humans as well? Are mental illness and intelligence correlated? As yet, there is little consensus. Sometimes the debate boils down to chicken-versus-egg levels. Do people with lower intelligence experience more depression because they are unable to accomplish what they want to do? Or does depression make it more unlikely that they will accomplish what they wish for? Most of the studies seem to relate to depression.
As the BBC report says, “Mental disorders seem to be the price animals pay for their intelligence. The same genes that made us smart also predisposed us to madness. There’s nothing shameful in that.”
Except, of course, that in humans there is stigma. Cats, now – they can get away with acting as crazy as they want. We’ll just call it adorbz and post it on YouTube.