Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The secret life of pets

Animal behaviour experts and anti-anxiety medications are treating everything from anxious dogs to self-harmin-g birds

In 2013, before cat videos were embraced as effective stress-busters, a YouTube video, titled Henri, Le Chat Noir, went viral. It featured a downcast, long-haired tuxedo cat, his defeated mien captured in black and white and voiced in French, over a plaintive piano soundtrack. The subtitled inner monologue produced reflective existential gems, such as “I am like a pendulum that does not like to swing".

This curiosity about the unknowable inner lives of animals has resulted in hilarious anthropomorphization (attributing human emotions to animals) on social media, radical experiments in labs (in 2012, a neuroscientist at Emory University, US, began training a group of dogs to undergo MRI scans) and generated active proponents for the nascent, developing field of animal psychiatry (such as Nicholas H. Dodman, also known as the Oliver Sacks for animals). But for the average pet owner, the nature and severity of animal distress is no less confounding. What causes sudden, unnatural aggression in dogs? Is a lethargic cat lazy or depressed? Can anxious pets benefit from antidepressants?

Canine behaviourist Moresha Benjamin at Moe’s Bed & Biscuits. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Canine behaviourist Moresha Benjamin at Moe’s Bed & Biscuits. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Urban living entails specific stresses for pets, from loneliness to a sudden change of home, even boredom, which can lead to disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in cats, feather-plucking in birds, and listlessness in smaller animals like turtles. With a gradual rise in awareness in lifestyle-conscious cities like Delhi and Mumbai, pet owners are now turning to a growing enterprise of canine behaviourists (and far fewer feline ones), new behaviour-modifying drugs, rehabilitation centres and alternative medicine practitioners.

How do you help an anxious dog?

A few years ago, a friend adopted an anxious pariah, Brew, and struggled to manage his “crippling fear of the outside world". Brew was easily upset by visitors, startled by sounds, and panicked for the entirety of his walks. She employed the help of Moresha Benjamin, a canine behaviourist who had trained under Shirin Merchant, one of the most trusted practitioners in the country. “Separation anxiety is learnt behaviour—some breeds like the Doberman are more prone to this—but in other cases, anxiety can also be imprinted. Street dogs have a tough life, so when the mother is high-wired, there are good chances that she transmits her fears to the puppy," says Benjamin, who also runs Moe’s Bed and Biscuits, a pet training and boarding service in Mumbai.

Unlike humans, Benjamin says, dogs lack the cognitive ability to confront and overcome such fears, but these can be managed with a few adjustments. “Brew was never forced to meet anybody; he was advised to walk either early in the morning, or late night, when there are fewer people around to trigger his anxiety."

Intelligent birds like parrots are known to pluck their feathers when understimulated.
Intelligent birds like parrots are known to pluck their feathers when understimulated.

Benjamin treats behavioural issues associated with loss of appetite, phobias, aggression, even listlessness or “depression" (a word behaviourists and vets are divided over, some prefer the term “understimulated"). To examine the cause of such disorders, a preliminary health check is done to look for underlying medical conditions. If the results are normal, habits, patterns and changes in the environment are observed, and then altered by working with the animal and the pet owner.

Benjamin prescribes some blanket rules so pets can “thrive, not survive" in tiny city apartments. “I tell owners you need to plan your dog’s week the way you plan yours. You need one thing in the week that the dog can look forward to—it can be a drive, or any activity he or she loves."

In cases of physical abuse and trauma, dogs and cats can also exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Earlier this year, Benjamin came across two cases of sexual abuse involving a four-month-old male Labrador and a five-year-old female Golden Retriever. If this is a fraught, stigmatized subject among humans, she says, the conversation is almost non-existent in the case of animals. “There is so much denial, owners think this won’t happen to my pet. In one case, the male partner was abusing the dog; in another, it was a dog walker. The dog was bleeding and the walker initially insisted it was an injury," says Benjamin. While abuse in animals can be difficult to detect, Benjamin recommends being alert to signs of withdrawal, or repeated avoidance of a particular individual, and checking for vaginal or anal injuries before seeking professional assistance.

Turtles exhibit stress-related disorders when kept in captivity.
Turtles exhibit stress-related disorders when kept in captivity.

While separation anxiety is less prevalent in cats, they are more prone to compulsive disorders. “Cats can exhibit OCD behaviour like pacing continuously or overgrooming, which creates wounds. Like humans, cats and dogs can also become senile, which is a cognitive dysfunction that makes them confused, or unable to recognize people," says Rajvi Mariwala, a canine and feline behaviourist who divides her time between Delhi and Mumbai.

According to Mariwala, the assumption that cats are aloof, indifferent and largely self-sufficient is a fallacy that reduces engagement with the animal, and can lead to behavioural disorders. In reality, an “enriched", stimulating environment is an essential prerequisite to raise a well-adjusted cat. “There are now more things in the market for cats, such as interactive games, food puzzles, diffusers and calming collars (which release cat pheromones to -relieve anxiety) that can be used for stress. Owners should adopt these after consulting a behaviourist," she says.

You are what you raise

While speaking to vets and behaviourists in the city, there was one observation that repeatedly presented itself: A pet’s behaviour is essentially a reflection of the traits, sometimes even the anxieties, of its owner. “If I meet a pet dog, I don’t need to meet the owner. The animal already tells me everything, it’s like listening to their side of the story," says Manoor Sachdev, a canine trainer and behaviourist who set-up Phoebe’s Farms, a sprawling rehabilitation centre for canines near Mumbai. “I think because Indians are emotional people, our problems are emotion-generated. Obsession and dependence is very common in Indian pets because owners are used to excessive pampering and encouraging dependency," he says.

A new-age consequence of the “you are what you raise" school of thought has engendered the rise of animal healing practitioners, where remedies are predominantly directed towards pet owners. Priya Saklani, an early entrant in the field, set up her animal reiki practice in 2012, amid much scepticism. “People said you need to pack your bags and go abroad for something like this, but now people are much more open to it. Unfortunately, some of them come to me too late, like in terminal cases," says Saklani.

Her unconventional treatment model is based on the view that disorders in pets are influenced by these owners’ lifestyle patterns, as well as their stresses and anxieties. “Behaviourists tell the animal to behave themselves so the owner is happy. But we look at them as higher beings that reflect the human’s issues. I work on identifying the root of the problem, not the symptoms."

Treating pets with Prozac

In 1994, a polar bear at the Central Park Zoo in New York drew attention for compulsively swimming in figure-eight patterns for 12 hours a day. Gus was prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant used in humans, making him one of the first animals in captivity to receive the medication. Since then, there has been a reported rise in the use of antidepressant drugs for animals in the West. In Animal Madness, an investigation of psychological disorders in animals (inspired by the personal loss of a compulsive pet), science historian Laurel Braitman presents the view that “this is not the story of animals taking human drugs but of humans taking animal drugs. Almost all contemporary psychopharmaceuticals—from antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine to minor tranquillisers like Valium…were developed in the mid-twentieth century, and animals were test subjects from the very beginning."

Zebrafish is the latest animal model being used for behavioural pharmacology studies, after it was found that we share more genetic similarities with them than was previously assumed. A novel tank test on these fish proved that in a stress-induced environment, they mirror depressive behaviour, which can be corrected with the use of antidepressants.

According to Sanjiv Rajadhyaksha, a veterinarian at the Small Animal Clinic and Surgical Centre in Mumbai, we must acknowledge our particular histories before we start panicking over the sudden mental unravelling of animals. “Dogs were basically tame wolves, and, over time, we domesticated these animals for our requirements—for instance, the Chinese used them to warm their feet. Now, from an open environment, where they had to kill for food, we live with them in tiny apartments, and put pressure on them, saying you do not mess our house, and so on. Herein come all the behavioural issues. Most psychological disorders are connected with the animal’s environment."

The triggers for such disorders could range from the loss of a companion pet or owner to a change of home, or even a litter box. “There are some medicines for phobias that are shared by pets and humans, such as Alprazolam or Restin, which we use in instances when the pet has to travel, or during festivals like Diwali," says Rajadhyaksha.

Several new herbal remedies that cater specifically to pets, such as Anxocare by Himalaya, are now available; these are categorized as nutraceuticals or nutritional supplements used as medicine. “Another new entrant is Calmex, by a UK company, which we have found quite effective…but I also feel there is not much regulation right now, and that’s how some of these newer guys are slipping in," says Rajadhyaksha.

When boredom leads to self-mutilation

In comparison to cats and dogs, there is a paucity of resources and experts available for smaller pets (though avian behaviourists are becoming more common in the West). Disorders like self-mutilation occur in intelligent birds like parrots, which are known to pluck their own feathers, often till they are bald, when “bored" or deprived of stimulation. Ashika Dhuri treats such cases at the Small and Exotic Animals Hospital in Mumbai, along with geckos, snakes, turtles, iguanas, and other “low-maintenance" pet choices. “What is relatively unknown, or not given attention to, is stress disorders in reptiles, which I have seen in 90% of our patients. This is basically a psychological disorder caused when the animal is kept in captivity. They can exhibit lethargy, poor pigmentation, anorexia," she says. “People think they don’t have a developed brain, but this is just a lack of awareness."

While she doesn’t condemn the purchase of these animals as pets, Dhuri suggests pet owners choose an animal that aligns naturally with their living conditions and lifestyle choices. “Do they need sunlight? Do they need a particular diet? We have cases of carnivorous animals that are on a vegetarian diet. Every animal has its own demands, and this is something you should ask a vet, not a seller or a dealer."

Animal psychiatry is an expanding field that routinely throws up new surprises. While anthropomorphism is disregarded for blurring essential dissimilarities between humans and animals, studies that probe the cognitive abilities of animals have found evidence of pessimism in pigs, happiness in nectar-fed bees, grief in elephants, and depression in goldfish.

According to Dhuri, understanding animal behaviour in a way that doesn’t anthropomorphize, but still empathizes, is a crucial work-in-progress. “Psychological disorders in animals are only just being given importance. There are arguments that humans are personifying animals, but every animal has their own thinking. When you interact with them, either as a pet, or even in a lab, you see evidence of behavioural changes. And we are still decoding them."

*****

Animal farm

A reading list of paradigm-shifting books that reveal new insights in animal psychology

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, And Other Tales From The Wild Side Of Wildlife By Lucy Cooke (Basic Books, 2018, Rs1,146)
The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, And Other Tales From The Wild Side Of Wildlife By Lucy Cooke (Basic Books, 2018, Rs1,146)
What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins By Jonathan Balcombe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, Rs544)
What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins By Jonathan Balcombe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, Rs544)
Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, And Elephants In Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves By Laurel Braitman (Scribe, 2014, Rs335)
Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, And Elephants In Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves By Laurel Braitman (Scribe, 2014, Rs335)
Pets On the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, And The New Science of Animal Psychiatry By Nicholas H. Dodman (Simon & Schuster, 2017, Rs409)
Pets On the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, And The New Science of Animal Psychiatry By Nicholas H. Dodman (Simon & Schuster, 2017, Rs409)
What It’s Like To Be A Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience By Gregory Berns (Basic Books, 2017, Rs1,423)
What It’s Like To Be A Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience By Gregory Berns (Basic Books, 2017, Rs1,423)
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