Exploring Mental Health in Companion Animals
When we think of our pets and the care we provide for them, we often think of the physical necessities: food, water, shelter. But how often do we explore the mental realm of animal care and wellbeing? Do our pets experience similar mental or neuropsychiatric disorders and how are those treated?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is often wrongly associated with overt cleanliness and a proclivity towards organization. The reality of OCD is far more complex and less worthy of the romanticization common in modern media. OCD causes intrusive thoughts known as obsessions and repetitive, time-consuming behaviours known as compulsions. An individual afflicted with OCD may, for example, feel the compulsion to lock and unlock their door exactly twelve times before bed each night.
Our canine companions can suffer from canine compulsive disorder (CCD), a disorder very similar in nature to human OCD. Neuroanatomically, CCD and OCD are quite similar; magnetic resonance imaging revealed a reduction in gray matter in both the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, indicative of altered activity in these areas for both conditions. Some examples of dog compulsions include tail chasing, paw chewing, and excessive grooming. A 2016 genome-wide association study and a 2017 genetic study found that CCD/OCD likely have a genetic basis, and some research has even indicated that specific compulsions may be passed on. Similarly, both animals and humans suffer from anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in humans involves both psychological and physical symptoms, such as reduced heart rate variability. Likewise, a 2017 study found that canines affected by anxiety-related behaviour are also likely to experience reduced heart rate variability.
Although dog owners and veterinary professionals typically focus on an animal’s physical wellbeing, it is important to consider the complex
mental disorders that may arise and address them accordingly.
Treatment plans for pets diagnosed with neuropsychiatric disorders may include the following:
- Management of the problem
- Assessment of temperament
- Behaviour modification and training
- Pharmacological intervention
Forms of pharmacological intervention in companion animals are similar to those utilized in human medicine. Fluoxetine, for example, is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used to treat both depression and OCD in humans. Fluoxetine has been utilized to treat
compulsive disorders, phobias, anxieties, and fears in companion animals. Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as clomipramine and serotonin receptor antagonists and reuptake inhibitors (SARIs) such as trazadone may also be used.
Pharmacologic intervention should be preceded by a physical exam and followup is critical to case management. Before prescribing medications, it is important to set expectations regarding efficacy and treatment duration with the client. Ultimately, mental health is complicated for both humans and their companions.
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