Ever since Freud deconstructed the human psyche into three discernible parts, namely our id, ego and superego — folks have been flocking to psychiatrist’s couches for almost 100 years now to learn more about what makes them tick. But what about our pets? What about those furry four-legged and feathered winged friends-of-the-family that not only have to put up with their master’s neuroses, but might just have a few ‘ticks’ of their own (literally and figuratively)? In other words, might they need a shrink?
Psychoveterinarian . . .
For want of a better title, Nicholas Dodman might be called a ‘psychoveterinarian.’ In exploring the psyches of our pets, he just published his research analyses in a book titled,“Pets on the Couch” (Atria Books, Kindle version - $13.99) — with a subtitle that kind of sums it up: “Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry.”
In its 304 pages, Dodman’s central thesis is that humans and their pets share the same neurochemistry that prompts both of our minds and emotions to function in similar ways. In a recent interview regarding his book, he notes that one of his tenets is wanting “to educate people to the fact that animals have feelings and emotions similar to our own.”
The troubled pets he has treated over the years are documented in the book as case studies. These particular subjects were fortunate enough to be treated by Dodman at the Animal Behavior Clinic, a treatment center he founded in 1986 at Tufts University, near Boston.
As can be expected, Dodman’s claims that our pets are emotional creatures just like ourselves is not something the entire scientific community agrees with. Presently less than half of the approximately 30 veterinary schools in North America even teach clinical animal behavior.
Marc Bekoff, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, at University of Colorado, Boulder noted that in the past, behavioral researchers were almost all skeptics. Since feelings don’t neatly fit under a microscope, they were initially unwilling to affirm the psychological makeup of pets.
However, that was decades ago. Today, according to Bekoff, there a good number of “prestigious scientific journals (that have studied) the joy in rats, grief in elephants and empathy in mice, and no one blinks.”
Well, if our dogs, cats and birds have emotional issues, the obvious question is do we treat them medically the same as humans? Dodman thinks so. He believes animals experience love, jealousy, fear, anxiety and depression. And he thinks some psychological and behavior problems can be treated with the same drugs given to human patients, such as Prozac.
However, like humans, drugs are not always the answer. Dodman suggests that drugs should never be a veterinarian’s first course of action. In fact, if used at all, veterinarians should only prescribe in small doses. With all of his first-time patients, he spends at least an hour and 20 minutes with the owner, discussing solutions that include diet, exercise and behavioral modification. He says one of his aims in exploring the psychological makeup of pets is to save lives — because bad behavior is often one of the leading causes of unnecessary euthanization.
So readers, your thoughts? Might you consider taking your cat, dog or bird to a psychoveterinarian? Ask your current veterinarian about this issue, if your pets are experiencing symptoms that might appear to be more emotional than physical. Vets should be your first recourse in beginning to answer that question, and hopefully will set you and your pet on a path to better mental health.