I’d like to thank Ryan of West Hollywood, California for drawing my attention to the cover story (free registration at nytimes.com is required) of this week’s New York Times Magazine. The article discusses the controversy surrounding the increasing use of medications such as Prozac in pets.
The article is lengthy, but it is worth reading if you have time. One section of the article was particularly interesting to me. It discussed the historical (and still, to a certain extent, ongoing) debate over whether animals experience emotions and thoughts. Here is a quote from the section.
The debate about animal minds is at least as old as Aristotle, who posited that men alone possess reason. The 17th-century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche wrote that animals desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing, while Voltaire asked, Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel? Darwins view was, Of course not. In The Descent of Man he wrote, We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties . . . of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. The staggering assertion of Darwins theory is that evolutionary continuity applies not just to bodies but to brains. The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind, he wrote.
I am going to side with Darwin on this one. I have spent a lot of time studying canine and feline anatomy and physiology. It turns out that the livers, kidneys, stomachs, intestines and yes, brains, of cats and dogs are very similar to those of humans. It is clear to me that pets have rich emotional lives. And it is also obvious that they can suffer from mental illness.
I have seen syndromes in pets that are remarkably similar to human psychiatric conditions. I know cats with trichotillomania (in veterinary medicine we call it psychogenic alopecia), dogs with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and members of both species with anxiety disorders. I receive at least a dozen questions each week from people whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety–a clear-cut anxiety disorder.
Behavioral modification is the cornerstone of treatment for these sorts of conditions in pets (behavioral modification is the closest thing veterinary medicine has to therapy). But I have seen some pets benefit dramatically when psychoactive medications were used in combination with behavior modification.
Our current understanding of pet psychiatric conditions is crude, to say the least. But I suspect that as we learn more about behavioral (or emotional) disorders in pets, we will be surprised by the similarities between their problems and ours.
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