Sheep eat hand fed grain on a farm owned by Ian Donges near Cowra, about 260 kilometres (162 miles) west of Sydney May 30, 2005. Eastern Australia is into the third month of the worst drought farmers can remember - more severe than the 2002 drought which the weather bureau classes the worst in a century. Picture taken May 30, 2005. To match feature Australia-drought REUTERS/Tim Wimborne   TBW - RTRDEK1

Can Animals Lose Their Minds?

Laurel Braitman's new book, "Animal Madness," tackles the biological debate over whether our furry friends can become mentally ill

“It was like dealing with a thousand heroin addicts,” Louise McKnight, a sheep farmer from Australia’s New South Wales, told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week. McKnight and her husband recently lost 800 of their herd after the sheep began grazing on the deceptively named “darling pea plant” that had begun growing in their pastures. As the McKnights observed, their flock had grown addicted to the noxious flower, which made them staggery, depressed and even suicidal. “They just go to a post and bang their head on it till they crack their heads open,” she said.

Local veterinarians were flummoxed by the sheeps’ erratic behavior, which one described as similar to that of a drunk, echoing another incident in Turkey from 2005 where 1,500 sheep hurled themselves off a cliff (though nearly two-thirds survived as the mounting pile of woolen bodies helped cushion their fall). Incredibly, another flock of 50 leapt to their deaths in 2010.

All three events were declared “sheep mass suicides” by the media, and while it’s likely they used the phrase for its sensationalism, let’s consider it seriously: If sheep can kill themselves, does this mean they can become mentally ill? And if sheep can become mentally ill, what about the rest of the non-human animal kingdom?

Braitman and her childhood Sardinian miniature donkey, Mac. 

Science historian Laurel Braitman has spent years trying to answer those questions, an effort that has culminated in the release of her first book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. After speaking with dozens of veterinarians, animal behaviorists, neuroscientists and fellow pet owners, traveling the globe to visit ailing animals and combing through the archives of the nation’s natural history museums, her conclusion—as you might have guessed—is that, just like us, animals can develop a few loose screws.

Braitman’s journey began when her own Bernese mountain dog, Oliver, survived a four-story fall after pushing the air-conditioning unit out of their apartment window and jumping out with it. Braitman and her husband were out of town, but the neighbors eventually found him, his snout still bloody from chewing through the wire mesh of the window screen. Braitman was both devastated and confused by her pet’s extreme fear, anxiety and compulsions, and it was during her struggle to help him heal that she began probing the complex minds of disturbed animals, and learning things about humans in turn.

“We aren’t alone in our trauma, paranoia, obsessions and depressions,” Braitman says from San Francisco. “We are different from other animals, but only by degree, and that is true in the context of mental health also.”

So far, there has been no distinct scientific effort to prove that animals can become mentally ill. The only research that does exist is split among different fields (neuropsychopharmacology, behavioral sciences, comparative psychology, wildlife ecology), and that’s a big part of why Braitman decided to write the book. “There is no overall consensus,” she says, “but within each discipline there are people who take it for granted that animals suffer emotional distress in ways that look much like human emotional distress.”

Braitman photographs a friend.

In fact, most of what we have learned about the unhinged human mind is something that was initially studied or recognized in other species. “Cognitive behavior therapy, lobotomies, and almost all of our psychopharmaceuticals were tested on other animals first. And only when they worked on those animals did we give them to people,” says Braitman. “Animals have always stood in as proxies for distressed humans.”

Braitman also looked at behavioral studies where animals were used as subjects, such as Harry Harlow’s research in the 1960s, which set out to prove the existence of human love using rhesus monkeys. “It was this work on monkeys that showed that children were going to wind up with developmental and emotional problems if they were deprived of maternal affection as infants,” she says. But science is having a hard time looking at this as a two-way street.

Part of this is the scientific community’s disdain for anthropomorphizing (projecting human qualities onto other animals), which Braitman says is a flawed view of the scientific process. “We should use our similarities with other animals to better understand them,” she says, “particularly when we are looking at mammal species that may be close to us.” But there is a way to do this well, and it’s not dressing up parrots in tuxedos or taking pooches to fancy doggy day cares with nicely upholstered furniture. The key, Braitman believes, is to identify with other animals “without turning them into tiny, furry, feathered or finned humans.”

Braitman watches a very outgoing whale.

Jodi Frediani

So maybe the way to save the polar bears and antibiotic-stimulant-arsenic-antidepressant-fed chickens is not just to evoke sympathy for them from a high place, but to encourage people to ask themselves: How would I feel if this were happening to me? “If we realize that the decisions and legislation we are making on the meta-scale can actually give animals mood disorders, then that could be another way into the conversation,” Braitman says of conservation and animal rights efforts.

As for suicidal sheep, she concedes that though we can’t know for sure what’s going on, we should give them the benefit of the doubt that they are capable of taking their own lives—precisely because it’s impossible to prove. “Many animals are intelligent creatures who can choose a state away from their pain in the present moment,” Braitman says.

Respond Now
  • I I were a cow, I would have an AR 15 and plenty of ammo. Sometimes they really are out to get you.

  • This shouldn’t even be a question in this Era.   Is the monster Dr. Pavlov still revered?  Look it up if you don’t know.   Ring a bell in hell, professor.If this was a Dr Who ep., I’d suspect the human race was being held back by some evil force.

  • As somebody who studied psychology at the collegiate level I am amazed this is even a question. So much of what we know about human insanity has come from tormenting and observing animals, how can we claim any of that data is useful unless animals are capable of experiencing mental disturbances similar in quality to our own?

  • At a local Zoo where I live in Wolverhampton there used to be a Polar Bear enclosure. You could tell this poor animal had some sort of mental problem probably due to it’s years spent in captivity. It used to spend most of it’s time just rocking it’s self backwards and forwards. Think of the film Happy Feet where all the penquins are in the enclosure and you wouldn’t be far from how that Polar Bear was.

  • I had a cat that was mentally ill. She would run through the apartment like she was being chased by demons. No, not the normal cat behavior. This was bizzar even for a cat. She would hit her head against the wall, jump around like the floor was hot and suddenly attack the other cats even when they were sleeping.

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • Um..  that’s prtty normal for a cat.

  • Consciousness and self-awareness (which most animals lack) are not required to be considered mentally-ill. Mental illness is caused by chemical and biological changes to the brain, therefore anything with a brain is capable of mental illness.

    2 Replies - Reply Now
    • how dumb are you? all animals are alive so they all have consciousness… they think in pictures not words

      1 Reply - Reply Now
      • Don’t mistake stupidity for ignorance.  Life is consciousness, some people have to die before they can realize that.   And by then it’s a moot point.

    • We mistake the drive to prune ourself for self recognition in mirror tests.   Your qualifications for the dimension ‘self aware’ are flawed.  It’s not your fault, it’s your education.   Think outside the box.   That term is over done, but it holds meaning for those that understand it.

  • Show More
  • great article!

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