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Crazy Dogs: Can Dogs Be Mentally Ill?

I have a crazy dog. Maybe you do too. Mine is a terrier, which I think explains a lot. Am I being unfair to the terrier breeds? You could say that; people who love terriers just adore the breed’s quirky, unpredictable behavior. My terrier, Jacob, gets so wound up sometimes he just spins, but when he is not worked up, he is a couch potato or a sweet ball-chaser. Does that mean he’s “crazy” though? Can you call an Australian Shepherd crazy for wanting all his sheep in a neat group? Is a Pointer crazy because he points at game? No, these are all breed-specific characteristics encoded to some degree in the dogs’ respective DNA. They were selectively bred for these traits. Sometimes, when their instincts are not able to be followed, they tend to get into trouble and act “nuts.” These dogs need their “jobs,” and owners need to compensate in some way to fulfill the urges of their dogs.

However, can dogs actually be “crazy,” “mentally ill,” or “off their nut”? The answer is YES.

What Is Mental Illness in Dogs?

According to The Mayo Clinic, “mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions: disorders that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time.”

Can Dogs Be “Mad”?

Laurel Braitman, Ph.D, wrote her book Animal Madness in 2014 using her observations based on personal experience and scientific research. “There is not a branch of veterinary science, ethology (the science of animal behavior), neuroscience, or wildlife ecology dedicated to investigating whether animals can be mentally ill,” she writes. “Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry: experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws.” Rather than condemn anthropomorphism (the act of assigning human traits to animal behavior), she recognizes it as a way to understand how animals relate to our human selves. Dr. Braitman states: “Madness is a mirror that needs normalcy to exist. This distinction can be a murky one.” Indeed.

The Role Of Trauma In Dog Behavior Disturbances

In the veterinary clinic, we see our share of nervous, fearful, obsessive-compulsive behaviors. We even see dogs who appear to suffer from more serious mental illness; that is, their behavior or thought processes could be described as inconsistent or contradictory. We often try to discover if there has been a trauma or abuse in their backgrounds when treating these pets. With rescued animals, that history is unknown in many cases. One case I remember is that of a German shepherd who had been trained by a self-proclaimed expert. The man chained the dog and zapped him with stronger and stronger electrical currents until the dog was dangerous and unpredictable. He was what many would consider insane. Our intervention was to prescribe medication and refer the owner to a legitimate trainer (Jon Brinkley of Kennel Club USA) who used various methods to treat the behavior issues. The dog is much better, but he will probably always have mental scars from the first experience. Had he not been treated, he would likely have been euthanized because of his behavior.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Dogs

Cruelty is not the only source of trauma to the minds of good dogs. San Antonio’s Lackland AFB Defense Department Military Dog Veterinary Service trains combat dogs. Over 2700 such dogs have this training, and approximately 600 of them are deployed at any one time. Sadly, 5 percent of deployed dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The staff at Fort Hood and other groups work diligently to rehabilitate these dogs post-deployment, either to return to service (75% are able to do so) or go into retirement with patient, knowledgeable people. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, veterinary behaviorist and director of animal behavior studies at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, says that ”though dogs can learn to tolerate those things that become triggers following a traumatic event,” he doubts whether, “dogs can ever fully recover. In a moment of adrenaline-charged terror, indelible learning takes place, aided by biochemistry.” Dr. Dodman does state that the administration of beta blockers soon after the event may prevent the “stamping” of the trauma into the brain. Sgt. Major James Hamm, founder of Lone Star Dog Training, studied under well-known dog trainer Martin Deeley and feels that rehabilitation can take place by distracting or “splitting” the mind. This works because dogs “do not process information logically nor rationally and do not dwell on events like humans do.”

Canine Depression

Walk through an animal shelter and you can see what depression looks like in dogs. The puppies do not have much of a memory to compare their current status to, but as they get older, or in the case of surrendered or abandoned animals, that questioning, pained look in their eyes will bring tears to yours. Grieving dogs wander the house looking for their housemate or the owner who suddenly is gone, never to return. Tails and ears are carried low, food holds no interest, and time and tender care are needed to work through the experience.

Anxiety in Dogs

I once had an Australian Shepherd that I had raised from puppyhood. She had no fear of thunderstorms until after an incident when she was home with her housemate and a frightening storm struck. Water partially flooded the room they were in, and we returned home to find an anxious bundle of nerves. She was afraid of storms for years but was eventually trained out of it by patience and distraction. Some dogs might also learn neurotic behavior from their owners because they can sense moods so easily. Veterinary advice will include swaddling with cloths or special garments such as Thundershirts, medication, intervention, or distraction-based training methods and stability in the household.

Other Causes Of Odd Behaviors In Animals

Dr. Christopher Pachel of Portland Oregon has a helpful website ( where he provides tips for unusual animal behavior. Some of the following tips, originating from a lecture he presented at the Midwest Veterinary Conference in Columbus, Ohio in 2014, reflect a new understanding of mental illness in our animal companions.

Biochemical imbalances in dogs, as in humans, can be responsible for physical, neurological, and behavioral problems. Examples of odd behaviors can include such things as attention seeking, hiding, obsessive-compulsive behavior, GI (gastro intestinal) problems, fly biting (biting at invisible things in the air), constant self-licking, polyphagia (over-eating), anorexia (not eating), pica (eating inedible items such as rocks, paint, or wood), and resource guarding, to name a few. Physical causes of odd behaviors can be determined with tests for such things as esophagus problems, infectious diseases, lead poisoning, epilepsy, Cushing’s disease, dental disease, central nervous system disorders, metabolic disease, distemper, encephalitis, tumors, internal parasites, and digestive disorders. Indicated tests might include analysis of the CBC (complete blood count), blood chemistry profile, fecal float and smear, pancreatic lipase, serum bile acids, X-rays, ultrasound, endoscopy, colonoscopy, exploratory surgery with biopsy, and more.

In other words, there are MANY ways your veterinarian can diagnose or rule out causes of strange behavior that have little or nothing to do with your pet’s brain. However, it takes an expert to really understand what’s going on in some cases.

Gastrointestinal (Gi) Basis For Strange Behavior in Dogs

One example of how GI problems affect dogs was shown in a 2012 controlled research study in which 19 dogs with excessive licking of selves were examined. The study looked at symptoms following feeding, gastric testing, dental disease, cognitive dysfunction, metabolic disease, and other compulsive behavior. The results showed that 6 of the 19 dogs had upper GI problems, 14 licked themselves but had no dermatological problems, 9 of 19 had no clinical signs, and 14 of the 19 had GI disorders of various types, including one with a foreign body. The dogs with GI problems were treated with medication and a diet that eliminated certain ingredients. A whopping 50% of those dogs improved. A separate study of 7 dogs with compulsive disorders resulted in the discovery of various GI issues and one skull malformation problem. Treatment cured 6 of the 7 dogs.

Absence of clinical signs does not mean there is not a medical reason for behavior issues. These findings are similar to some of those indicated in children, who, like dogs, often cannot vocalize their distress and discomfort.