Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves by Laurel Braitman

animal madnessI couldn’t resist picking up this book to read after seeing the title. It did not disappoint. The author has spent her life studying animals as a biologist and MIT doctoral student, but it was her personal story of loving Oliver, a Bernese Mountain dog with debilitating separation anxiety and huge behavioral issues, which led her to research and write this compelling book about how animals, like us, can also suffer the “emotional thunderstorms” and disturbances characterized as mental illness.

Her research took her around the world to study animals in different circumstances and to collect their stories. She also goes back to earliest records of beached whales in the middle ages, through Darwin and B.F. Skinner , newspaper accounts of “rogue elephants” escaping from circuses and dog breeders, veterinarians and wildlife ecologists working with animals today.

The stories are poignant and compelling, such as accounts of dogs suffering from PTSD during World War One. The symptoms of these dogs mirrored those of the soldiers who fell mute in response to the threats and violence they witnessed. She draws parallels between the mutism and the responses of prey animals who freeze in the presence of a predator. Likewise, there are parallels between humans with OCD who must wash obsessively and animals who suffer from acral lick dermatis, or licking one’s paws until they bleed. In both cases it seems to be a self-destructive way of self-calming and an outlet for anxiety

Interestingly, abused animals and animals suffering what seems to be depression or anxiety or fear can get better in the same way that we can – through love and affection, medicine, behavioral therapy and the knowledge that someone understands their suffering and can help them feel better.  This optimism which is based on evidence, balances the very sad stories such as that of Tip the circus elephant who was deemed ”mad” – not because he was rabid but because he reacted violently to the person who kept him in chains and diminished his world to a square patch of earth with no social, physical or emotional stimulation other than beatings.

This very readable, accessible science book received raves from Discover Magazine and a wide range of sources. It challenges our assumption that humans are the only creatures to understand and truly feel pain, loss and frustration and to express it through our behavior. After reading Animal Madness, you may never look at your dog’s chasing his own tail or an animal rocking itself in a zoo enclosure in the same way again.

Angela Meady is the Head of Children and Youth Services for the Thunder Bay Public Library

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