“Animal Madness” By Laurel Braitman: Losing Their Minds

For the first time, a historian of science draws evidence from across the world to show how humans and other animals are astonishingly similar when it comes to their feelings and the ways in which they lose their minds. Publisher of Laurel Braitman’s Animal Madness

Studying her own dog, Oliver—whose issues included separation anxiety, aggression, and self-harming behavior—was one of the first major clues for animal researcher and author of Animal Madness Laurel Braitman, PhD, that “(n)onhuman animals can lose their minds. And when they do, it often looks a lot like human mental illness.”

Just a sampling of remarks about her new and highly praised book, subtitled How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots And Elephants In Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves:

Animal analyst Marc Bekoff, who wrote Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, states, “Animal Madness is a landmark book. Researchers have long ignored animals in need, especially in the wild. However, just as we suffer from a wide variety of psychological disorders so too do other animals. But they make a remarkable recovery when they are cared for, understood, and loved.”

Naturalist Sy Montgomery calls it “the sanest book I’ve read in a long time. Laurel Braitman irrefutably shows that animals think and feel, and experience the same emotions that we do.”

Publishers Weekly: “Bears can endure heartbreak, elephants can form intense social attachments, and gorillas can die from homesickness…Braitman’s delightful balance of humor and poignancy brings each case to life as she draws on her own experience, research, and the theories of Darwin, Descartes, and others…[This book’s] continuous dose of hope should prove medicinal for humans and animals alike.”

Braitman points out that when it comes to understanding human mental illness, animals have actually been the main provider of information all along. As she explains to NPR interviewer Don Gonyea: “So everything from a concept of emotional resilience, which really stems from Ivan Pavlov’s work in dogs in the early 20th century, to a lot of what we’ve learned about the kinds of things that infants need for healthy development, we learned from watching monkeys. A monkey who has been denied affection just won’t become a healthy adult.”

In a brief TED article she offers other examples of animals and humans experiencing similar maladies. They include a brokenhearted German shepherd as well as various animals with OCD, phobias, and  PTSD.

It’s not always because of past mistreatment that animals develop mental problems, Braitman points out in Animal Madness. “I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems.”

About the other end of the mental health spectrum, she adds, “I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.”

What helps animals with their problems are actually the kinds of things that help you and me. Kate Tuttle, reviewing Animal Madness for the Boston Globe: “Medication aside, it’s clear that what soothes troubled animals — patience, sympathy, consistency — helps humans, too. After all, as a Thai monk who ministers to elephants tells Braitman, ‘In order to understand other animals, first you have to understand yourself.’”

Other prescriptions for ailing animals, accordingly, include lifestyle changes and being paired with another animal. But it’s not just about same-species companionship. Racehorses, for example, are often calmed by any of the following: goats, sheep, rabbits, donkeys, roosters, pigs, cats, and monkeys.

Unfortunately, by the way, various treatment strategies failed to help Braitman’s dog Oliver. He eventually died from eating wood and developing a severe case of bloat, necessitating euthanasia.

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