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TEDSalon NY2014

Laurel Braitman: Depressed dogs, cats with OCD — what animal madness means for us humans

July 16, 2014

Behind those funny animal videos, sometimes, are oddly human-like problems. Laurel Braitman studies non-human animals who exhibit signs of mental health issues -- from compulsive bears to self-destructive rats to monkeys with unlikely friends. Braitman asks what we as humans can learn from watching animals cope with depression, sadness and other all-too-human problems.

Laurel Braitman - Science Historian + Writer
Science historian Laurel Braitman is the author of Animal Madness, a book that takes a close look at our non-human friends and their mental anxieties. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Oliver was an extremely dashing,
00:13
handsome, charming and largely unstable male
00:17
that I completely lost my heart to.
00:21
(Laughter)
00:25
He was a Bernese mountain dog,
00:28
and my ex-husband and I adopted him,
00:29
and about six months in,
00:32
we realized that he was a mess.
00:34
He had such paralyzing separation anxiety
00:37
that we couldn't leave him alone.
00:39
Once, he jumped out of our third floor apartment.
00:41
He ate fabric. He ate things, recyclables.
00:44
He hunted flies that didn't exist.
00:49
He suffered from hallucinations.
00:50
He was diagnosed with a canine compulsive disorder
00:52
and that's really just the tip of the iceberg.
00:55
But like with humans,
00:59
sometimes it's six months in
01:03
before you realize that
01:06
the person that you love has some issues.
01:08
(Laughter)
01:11
And most of us do not take the person we're dating
01:12
back to the bar where we met them
01:16
or give them back to the friend that introduced us,
01:19
or sign them back up on Match.com.
01:23
(Laughter)
01:26
We love them anyway,
01:28
and we stick to it,
01:30
and that is what I did with my dog.
01:32
And I was a — I'd studied biology.
01:36
I have a Ph.D. in history of science
01:40
from MIT,
01:43
and had you asked me 10 years ago
01:44
if a dog I loved, or just dogs generally,
01:46
had emotions, I would have said yes,
01:48
but I'm not sure that I would have told you
01:50
that they can also wind up with an anxiety disorder,
01:52
a Prozac prescription and a therapist.
01:54
But then, I fell in love, and I realized that they can,
01:58
and actually trying to help my own dog
02:02
overcome his panic and his anxiety,
02:05
it just changed my life.
02:07
It cracked open my world.
02:10
And I spent the last seven years, actually,
02:12
looking into this topic of
mental illness in other animals.
02:15
Can they be mentally ill like people,
02:17
and if so, what does it mean about us?
02:19
And what I discovered is that I do believe
02:22
they can suffer from mental illness,
02:24
and actually looking and trying
to identify mental illness in them
02:26
often helps us be better friends to them
02:31
and also can help us better understand ourselves.
02:33
So let's talk about diagnosis for a minute.
02:37
Many of us think that we can't know
02:40
what another animal is thinking,
02:43
and that is true,
02:46
but any of you in relationships —
02:47
at least this is my case —
02:49
just because you ask someone that you're with
02:51
or your parent or your child how they feel
02:53
doesn't mean that they can tell you.
02:55
They may not have words to explain
02:57
what it is that they're feeling,
02:59
and they may not know.
03:00
It's actually a pretty recent phenomenon
03:02
that we feel that we have to talk to someone
03:04
to understand their emotional distress.
03:06
Before the early 20th century,
03:08
physicians often diagnosed emotional distress
03:11
in their patients just by observation.
03:13
It also turns out that thinking about
03:17
mental illness in other animals
03:18
isn't actually that much of a stretch.
03:20
Most mental disorders in the United States
03:22
are fear and anxiety disorders,
03:24
and when you think about it, fear and anxiety
03:27
are actually really extremely
helpful animal emotions.
03:29
Usually we feel fear and anxiety
in situations that are dangerous,
03:33
and once we feel them,
03:36
we then are motivated to move away
03:37
from whatever is dangerous.
03:39
The problem is when we begin to feel fear
and anxiety in situations that don't call for it.
03:41
Mood disorders, too, may actually just be
03:46
the unfortunate downside of being a feeling animal,
03:49
and obsessive compulsive disorders also
03:53
are often manifestations of
a really healthy animal thing
03:56
which is keeping yourself clean and groomed.
03:59
This tips into the territory of mental illness
04:02
when you do things like
04:04
compulsively over-wash your hands or paws,
04:05
or you develop a ritual that's so extreme
04:08
that you can't sit down to a bowl of food
04:10
unless you engage in that ritual.
04:12
So for humans, we have the
"Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,"
04:15
which is basically an atlas
04:19
of the currently agreed-upon mental disorders.
04:21
In other animals, we have YouTube.
04:24
(Laughter)
04:27
This is just one search I did for "OCD dog"
04:29
but I encourage all of you
04:32
to look at "OCD cat."
04:33
You will be shocked by what you see.
04:36
I'm going to show you just a couple examples.
04:40
This is an example of shadow-chasing.
04:44
I know, and it's funny and in some ways it's cute.
04:47
The issue, though, is that dogs
can develop compulsions like this
04:50
that they then engage in all day.
04:54
So they won't go for a walk,
04:56
they won't hang out with their friends,
04:58
they won't eat.
04:59
They'll develop fixations
05:01
like chasing their tails compulsively.
05:03
Here's an example of a cat named Gizmo.
05:06
He looks like he's on a stakeout
05:09
but he does this for many, many, many hours a day.
05:12
He just sits there and he will paw and paw and paw
05:16
at the screen.
05:19
This is another example of what's considered
05:21
a stereotypic behavior.
05:23
This is a sun bear at the
Oakland Zoo named Ting Ting.
05:25
And if you just sort of happened upon this scene,
05:28
you might think that Ting Ting
05:29
is just playing with a stick,
05:30
but Ting Ting does this all day,
05:32
and if you pay close attention
05:34
and if I showed you guys
the full half-hour of this clip,
05:36
you'd see that he does the exact same thing
05:39
in the exact same order, and he spins the stick
05:41
in the exact same way every time.
05:43
Other super common behaviors that you may see,
05:46
particularly in captive animals,
05:48
are pacing stereotypies or swaying stereotypies,
05:50
and actually, humans do this too,
05:55
and in us, we'll sway,
05:56
we'll move from side to side.
05:58
Many of us do this, and sometimes
06:00
it's an effort to soothe ourselves,
06:02
and I think in other animals
that is often the case too.
06:04
But it's not just stereotypic behaviors
06:06
that other animals engage in.
06:08
This is Gigi. She's a gorilla that lives
06:10
at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.
06:12
She actually has a Harvard psychiatrist,
06:13
and she's been treated for a mood disorder
06:16
among other things.
06:17
Many animals develop mood disorders.
06:19
Lots of creatures —
06:22
this horse is just one example —
06:23
develop self-destructive behaviors.
06:25
They'll gnaw on things
06:27
or do other things that may also soothe them,
06:28
even if they're self-destructive,
06:30
which could be considered similar
06:32
to the ways that some humans cut themselves.
06:33
Plucking.
06:37
Turns out, if you have fur or feathers or skin,
06:38
you can pluck yourself compulsively,
06:42
and some parrots actually have been studied
06:44
to better understand trichotillomania,
or compulsive plucking in humans,
06:46
something that affects
06:49
20 million Americans right now.
06:51
Lab rats pluck themselves too.
06:53
In them, it's called barbering.
06:55
Canine veterans of conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan
06:57
are coming back with what's
considered canine PTSD,
07:00
and they're having a hard time reentering civilian life
07:03
when they come back from deployments.
07:06
They can be too scared to
approach men with beards
07:07
or to hop into cars.
07:10
I want to be careful and be clear, though.
07:13
I do not think that canine PTSD
07:15
is the same as human PTSD.
07:18
But I also do not think that my PTSD
07:21
is like your PTSD,
07:23
or that my anxiety or that my sadness is like yours.
07:24
We are all different.
07:28
We also all have very different susceptibilities.
07:30
So two dogs, raised in the same household,
07:33
exposed to the very same things,
07:36
one may develop, say, a
debilitating fear of motorcycles,
07:39
or a phobia of the beep of the microwave,
07:43
and another one is going to be just fine.
07:45
So one thing that people ask me pretty frequently:
07:47
Is this just an instance of humans
07:50
driving other animals crazy?
07:52
Or, is animal mental illness just
a result of mistreatment or abuse?
07:54
And it turns out we're actually
07:58
so much more complicated than that.
07:59
So one great thing that has happened to me
08:03
is recently I published a book on this,
08:06
and every day now that I open my email
08:09
or when I go to a reading
08:13
or even when I go to a cocktail party,
08:14
people tell me their stories
08:16
of the animals that they have met.
08:18
And recently, I did a reading in California,
08:20
and a woman raised her hand
after the talk and she said,
08:23
"Dr. Braitman, I think my cat has PTSD."
08:25
And I said, "Well, why? Tell me a little bit about it."
08:29
So, Ping is her cat. She was a rescue,
08:32
and she used to live with an elderly man,
08:35
and one day the man was vacuuming
08:38
and he suffered a heart attack, and he died.
08:40
A week later, Ping was discovered in the apartment
08:43
alongside the body of her owner,
08:46
and the vacuum had been running the entire time.
08:48
For many months, up to I think
two years after that incident,
08:52
she was so scared she couldn't be in
the house when anyone was cleaning.
08:57
She was quite literally a scaredy cat.
08:59
She would hide in the closet.
09:01
She was un-self-confident and shaky,
09:04
but with the loving support of her family,
09:05
a lot of a time, and their patience,
09:08
now, three years later,
09:10
she's actually a happy, confident cat.
09:11
Another story of trauma and
recovery that I came across
09:15
was actually a few years ago.
09:18
I was in Thailand to do some research.
09:19
I met a monkey named Boonlua,
09:21
and when Boonlua was a baby,
09:25
he was attacked by a pack of dogs,
09:27
and they ripped off both of his legs and one arm,
09:29
and Boonlua dragged himself to a monastery,
09:34
where the monks took him in.
09:37
They called in a veterinarian,
who treated his wounds.
09:38
Eventually, Boonlua wound up
09:41
at an elephant facility,
09:43
and the keepers really decided
to take him under their wing,
09:45
and they figured out what he liked,
09:48
which, it turned out, was mint Mentos
09:49
and Rhinoceros beetles and eggs.
09:51
But they worried, because he
was social, that he was lonely,
09:55
and they didn't want to put
him in with another monkey,
09:58
because they thought with just one arm,
10:00
he wouldn't be able to defend himself or even play.
10:01
And so they gave him a rabbit,
10:04
and Boonlua was immediately a different monkey.
10:06
He was extremely happy to be with this rabbit.
10:09
They groomed each other,
they become close friends,
10:11
and then the rabbit had bunnies,
10:13
and Boonlua was even happier than he was before,
10:16
and it had in a way given him
10:19
a reason to wake up in the morning,
10:21
and in fact it gave him such a reason to wake up
10:23
that he decided not to sleep.
10:25
He became extremely protective of these bunnies,
10:27
and he stopped sleeping,
10:30
and he would sort of nod off
10:32
while trying to take care of them.
10:33
In fact, he was so protective and so affectionate
10:35
with these babies that the sanctuary
10:37
eventually had to take them away from him
10:39
because he was so protective, he was worried
10:41
that their mother might hurt them.
10:43
So after they were taken away, the sanctuary staff
10:45
worried that he would fall into a depression,
10:47
and so to avoid that,
10:49
they gave him another rabbit friend.
10:50
(Laughter)
10:53
My official opinion is that
he does not look depressed.
10:56
(Laughter)
10:59
So one thing that I would really like people to feel
11:01
is that you really should feel empowered
11:05
to make some assumptions
11:08
about the creatures that you know well.
11:11
So when it comes to your dog
11:13
or your cat or maybe your one-armed monkey
11:14
that you happen to know,
11:17
if you think that they are traumatized or depressed,
11:18
you're probably right.
11:22
This is extremely anthropomorphic,
11:24
or the assignation of human characteristics
11:27
onto non-human animals or things.
11:30
I don't think, though, that that's a problem.
11:34
I don't think that we can not anthropomorphize.
11:36
It's not as if you can take your
human brain out of your head
11:38
and put it in a jar and then use it
11:41
to think about another animal thinking.
11:43
We will always be one animal wondering
11:45
about the emotional experience of another animal.
11:48
So then the choice becomes, how
do you anthropomorphize well?
11:50
Or do you anthropomorphize poorly?
11:53
And anthropomorphizing poorly
11:55
is all too common.
11:58
(Laughter)
12:00
It may include dressing your corgis
up and throwing them a wedding,
12:02
or getting too close to exotic wildlife because
12:04
you believe that you had a spiritual connection.
12:07
There's all manner of things.
12:09
Anthropomorphizing well, however, I believe is based
12:11
on accepting our animal
similarities with other species
12:15
and using them to make assumptions
12:17
that are informed about other
animals' minds and experiences,
12:20
and there's actually an entire industry
12:24
that is in some ways based
on anthropomorphizing well,
12:26
and that is the psychopharmaceutical industry.
12:29
One in five Americans is currently
taking a psychopharmaceutical drug,
12:32
from the antidepressants
and antianxiety medications
12:37
to the antipsychotics.
12:40
It turns out that we owe this
12:41
entire psychopharmaceutical arsenal
12:43
to other animals.
12:46
These drugs were tested in non-human animals first,
12:47
and not just for toxicity but for behavioral effects.
12:50
The very popular antipsychotic Thorazine
12:54
first relaxed rats before it relaxed people.
12:57
The antianxiety medication Librium
13:01
was given to cats selected for
their meanness in the 1950s
13:03
and made them into peaceable felines.
13:07
And even antidepressants
were first tested in rabbits.
13:09
Today, however, we are not just giving these drugs
13:14
to other animals as test subjects,
13:17
but they're giving them these drugs as patients,
13:19
both in ethical and much less ethical ways.
13:21
SeaWorld gives mother orcas
antianxiety medications
13:26
when their calves are taken away.
13:30
Many zoo gorillas have been given antipsychotics
13:32
and antianxiety medications.
13:35
But dogs like my own Oliver
13:37
are given antidepressants and
some antianxiety medications
13:40
to keep them from jumping out of buildings
13:43
or jumping into traffic.
13:45
Just recently, actually, a study came out in "Science"
13:47
that showed that even crawdads
13:50
responded to antianxiety medication.
13:52
It made them braver, less skittish,
13:54
and more likely to explore their environment.
13:56
It's hard to know how many
animals are on these drugs,
14:01
but I can tell you that the
animal pharmaceutical industry
14:04
is immense and growing,
14:07
from seven billion dollars in 2011
14:09
to a projected 9.25 billion by the year 2015.
14:12
Some animals are on these drugs indefinitely.
14:17
Others, like one bonobo who lives in Milwaukee
14:21
at the zoo there was on them
14:25
until he started to save his Paxil prescription
14:27
and then distribute it among the other bonobos.
14:29
(Laughter) (Applause)
14:31
More than psychopharmaceuticals, though,
14:36
there are many, many, many other
14:39
therapeutic interventions that help other creatures.
14:42
And here is a place where I think actually
14:44
that veterinary medicine can teach something
14:47
to human medicine,
14:49
which is, if you take your dog, who is, say,
14:51
compulsively chasing his tail,
14:53
into the veterinary behaviorist,
14:55
their first action isn't to reach
for the prescription pad;
14:56
it's to ask you about your dog's life.
14:59
They want to know how often your dog gets outside.
15:02
They want to know how much
exercise your dog is getting.
15:05
They want to know how much social time
15:08
with other dogs and other humans.
15:09
They want to talk to you
about what sorts of therapies,
15:12
largely behavior therapies,
15:14
you've tried with that animal.
15:16
Those are the things that
often tend to help the most,
15:19
especially when combined with
psychopharmaceuticals.
15:21
The thing, though, I believe, that helps the most,
15:24
particularly with social animals,
15:27
is time with other social animals.
15:29
In many ways, I feel like I became a service animal
15:32
to my own dog,
15:36
and I have seen parrots do it for people
15:38
and people do it for parrots
15:42
and dogs do it for elephants
15:44
and elephants do it for other elephants.
15:46
I don't know about you;
15:49
I get a lot of Internet forwards
15:50
of unlikely animal friendships.
15:53
I also think it's a huge part of Facebook,
15:55
the monkey that adopts the cat
15:58
or the great dane who adopted the orphaned fawn,
16:01
or the cow that makes friends with the pig,
16:06
and had you asked me eight,
nine years ago, about these,
16:09
I would have told you that they
were hopelessly sentimental
16:13
and maybe too anthropomorphic in the wrong way
16:15
and maybe even staged, and what I can tell you now
16:18
is that there is actually something to this.
16:21
This is legit. In fact, some interesting studies
16:24
have pointed to oxytocin levels,
16:28
which are a kind of bonding hormone
16:30
that we release when we're having sex or nursing
16:32
or around someone that we care for extremely,
16:35
oxytocin levels raising in both humans and dogs
16:37
who care about each other
16:40
or who enjoy each other's company,
16:41
and beyond that, other studies show that oxytocin
16:43
raised even in other pairs of animals,
16:45
so, say, in goats and dogs who were
friends and played with each other,
16:47
their levels spiked afterwards.
16:51
I have a friend who really showed me that
16:55
mental health is in fact a two-way street.
16:58
His name is Lonnie Hodge,
and he's a veteran of Vietnam.
17:00
When he returned, he started working
17:04
with survivors of genocide and a lot of people
17:07
who had gone through war trauma.
17:10
And he had PTSD and also a fear of heights,
17:11
because in Vietnam, he had been
17:14
rappelling backwards out of helicopters
17:16
over the skids,
17:18
and he was givena service dog
named Gander, a labradoodle,
17:19
to help him with PTSD and his fear of heights.
17:22
This is them actually on the first day that they met,
17:26
which is amazing, and since then,
17:28
they've spent a lot of time together
17:31
visiting with other veterans
suffering from similar issues.
17:33
But what's so interesting to me about
Lonnie and Gander's relationship
17:37
is about a few months in,
17:40
Gander actually developed a fear of heights,
17:42
probably because he was
watching Lonnie so closely.
17:45
What's pretty great about this, though,
is that he's still a fantastic service dog,
17:49
because now, when they're both at a great height,
17:53
Lonnie is so concerned with Gander's well-being
17:55
that he forgets to be scared of the heights himself.
17:59
Since I've spent so much time with these stories,
18:05
digging into archives,
18:08
I literally spent years doing this research,
18:10
and it's changed me.
18:12
I no longer look at animals at the species level.
18:14
I look at them as individuals,
18:18
and I think about them as creatures
18:20
with their own individual weather systems
18:22
guiding their behavior and informing
18:25
how they respond to the world.
18:26
And I really believe that this has made me
18:29
a more curious and a more empathetic person,
18:32
both to the animals that share my bed
18:34
and occasionally wind up on my plate,
18:37
but also to the people that I know
18:40
who are suffering from anxiety
18:42
and from phobias and all manner of other things,
18:45
and I really do believe that
18:48
even though you can't know exactly
18:50
what's going on in the mind of a pig
18:52
or your pug or your partner,
18:56
that that shouldn't stop you
from empathizing with them.
18:58
The best thing that we could do for our loved ones
19:02
is, perhaps, to anthropomorphize them.
19:04
Charles Darwin's father once told him
19:08
that everybody could lose their mind at some point.
19:12
Thankfully, we can often find them again,
19:17
but only with each other's help.
19:20
Thank you.
19:22
(Applause)
19:24

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Laurel Braitman - Science Historian + Writer
Science historian Laurel Braitman is the author of Animal Madness, a book that takes a close look at our non-human friends and their mental anxieties.

Why you should listen
Laurel Braitman is a science historian who wants to know: Why is your cat so sad? For her book Animal Madness, the TED Fellow delves into the history of mental illness in animals, revealing a world of parrots that pluck themselves, cats with PTSD and donkeys with deep neuroses. Braitman holds a PhD in history and anthropology of science from MIT and works as an affiliate artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts.
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