Emotional Disorders


What we think of as unpleasant emotions, feelings like anxiety, worry or stress are defensive. They evolved to protect pets from threats and dangers. Anxiety is like an emergency chemical first aid kit. The cortex of the pet's brain thinks there is a stress, communicates through the limbic system with the rest of the brain and triggers a cascade of chemical changes that affect the entire body. These short-acting chemical changes are vital for survival. If they get triggered too easily or last too long, emotional disorders are a consequence. This occurs more frequently in older pets who may also experience an Alzheimer's-like deterioration in brain function.

The Value Of Emotions

Anxiety is not a disease. Unpleasant emotions are a response, a defensive response, to the circumstances that a pet finds itself in. Chronic anxiety however, is damaging to a pet's health and creates behaviour disorders. During stress, adrenalin acts within seconds, while cortisol is longer acting, backing up the stress response with increased mobilisation of sugar for energy. There is no harm in a pet experiencing short bouts of stress. If bouts are prolonged however or, if like a defective smoke alarm the stress response is constantly and needlessly triggered this leads to chronic stress and the sustained release of damaging stress chemicals. The eloquent American neurologist Robert Sapolsky says, "People with chronic depressions are those whose cortex habitually whispers sad things to the rest of the brain." In people and in pets, the whispering takes place through chemicals in the 'limbic system' of the brain.

The Role Of The Limbic System

Mind and body meet in the brain's limbic system. This primitive spider's web of interconnections in the pet's brain orchestrates instincts and emotions. The nervous and hormonal systems are controlled by the limbic system through its production of chemical messengers called 'neurotransmitters'. The role of neurotransmitters is profound. Serotonin, for example, is vital for mood. Decreased serotonin in people leads to depression. Some research in pets suggests that serotonin is also related to confidence. Confident pets have good levels of serotonin while timid pets may produce less of this vital neurotransmitter. Mood-altering drugs affect brain chemistry. In people, psychotherapy and counselling also affect brain chemistry. In pets experiences such as training, desensitising, counter-conditioning and exercise all affect neurotransmitter levels, behaviours and emotions.

General Behaviour Problems

A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or a situation. Pets develop rational fears, of veterinary clinics for example, but also irrational fears, of men wearing hats, thunder, people limping or other non-threatening sights, sounds or situations. Anxiety, part of natural 'fight or flight' is normal in many circumstances but may become irrational as when a dog is anxious if its owner simply leaves the room. This can lead to panic-attacks in which muscles become tense and a dog hyperventilates, or compulsive behaviour in which a dog ritually performs a certain activity such as pacing back and forth or obsessively licking itself. An inability to relax or to sleep is an extreme form of anxiety. Depression is difficult to diagnose in pets. It may manifest itself in a decreased or, less frequently, increased appetite, clinging or 'remote' behaviour, irritability or lethargy. Grieving, a combination of depression and sadness occurs in pets when an important member of their 'family' dies or simply leaves, although this too is almost impossible to define using standard veterinary medical definitions.

Diagnostic treatments

A dog's fears, phobias, anxieties, depression and grieving have not been considered an integral part of conventional veterinary medicine until quite recently. A diagnosis of an emotional disorder is wholly subjective. Bruce Fogle’s books, The Dog’s Mind and The Cat’s Mind are standard texts used by dog trainers and veterinary surgeons with advanced training in behavioural medicine. Sedatives such as acepromazine are commonly used to tranquillise anxious pets. These produce a lack of coordination that lasts six to 12 hours. Anti-anxiety drugs such as diazepam have been commonly prescribed but are now used more frequently for short-term anxiety such as that associated with travel. Increasingly, we treat canine emotional disorders with a combination of environmental enhancement, desensitising or counter-conditioning training and newer mood-altering drugs. Drugs such as clomipramine and amitriptyline, developed to treat anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders in people are sometimes used. These drugs affect neurochemicals such as serotonin. A typical drug may raise serotonin levels. This can have a profound and not always anticipated effect on a pet's behaviour. For all behaviour problems, behavioural therapy is vital. Drugs alone do not cure emotional problems.

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