It is a worrying fact that individuals experiencing mental illness are frequently faced with discrimination driven by misconceptions of their disease. These misconceptions were born hundreds of years ago and it seems we have yet to shake them. Because of this, individuals who would benefit from mental health services often do not seek help for fear they will be viewed in a negative way.
It is well and truly time we update our knowledge and appreciate that evidence-based research has shown that mental illness’s are real medical diseases. No-one need feel ashamed for taking medication as a tool to stabilise mental illness. I support all evidence based approaches that reduce the time it takes to heal……from any type of disease.
Right….now that I have that out of my system what of the animal kingdom and mental illness? Can dogs suffer anxiety…..yes! Is there evidence based research supporting the use of medication in dogs…yes again! Science has made great strides in the treatment of mental illness in both dogs and humans alike. With proper treatment, dogs with mental illness can live normal, happy lives. Importantly the right medication has the ability to reduce the time it takes to heal from behavioural disease by 75%. In my work this means stabilising behaviours in 6 months as compared to 2 years!
Medication for mental illness is just a tool. It doesn’t work without commitment to environmental change and behaviour modification to improve how safe an individual feels. I once heard an analogy that went a little something like this: “giving a dog medication for mental illness is like giving someone a hammer when they want to build something. It won’t build that something for the person, but it makes hammering the nails a little easier”.
Side-effects are another area of concern. Every medication has potential side effects (….actually everything you put on or in your body has the potential for side effects). Side effects of anti-seizure medications are well known but it is not commonly suggested that dogs suffering weekly seizures should not be given medications prescribed by their veterinarian. Well what about dogs that suffer daily panic, fear or distress? In fact behavioural medications used in veterinary medicine have very few side effects when compared to other veterinary medicines.
While on the topic of side effects I would like to address the common concern that behavioural medications will turn your dog into a zombie. Medications used for treating behavioural disease have changed alot in the last 20, 10, 5 years. When the correct medications are based on an accurate diagnosis your dog will categorical and absolutely not be a zombie. Their personality will be untouched, but their emotional pathways will work better so that they can learn better behaviours when they are worried. Do I treat every patient I see with medication?…..goodness me no. I only use medication when I diagnose mental illness and even then not all the time. I use carefully selected medication based on a diagnosis and in accordance with evidence based research. It is not one magic fit pill for all occasions either. There are many different medications, each being used for a different disease. Diagnosis is the key.
We all have a role to play in reducing the stigma within our communities and make life easier for our canine companions with mental illness but also for the 450 million people worldwide who live with mental illness.
What can you do? I am pleased you asked……
- Educate yourself about mental illness in companion animals (and people too!). Having the facts will help you challenge others who continue to be misinformed about mental disease.
- Seek help and support for dogs with mental illness. Treat them early and be gentle.
- Share your story. If you, someone in your familiy or your canine companion is living with mental disease talk about it. Setting an example may help others reach the support they need for their dog or themselves sooner.
Please share the word with your friends and family. If you feel strongly for or against I would love your comments. The more we engage on this topic the better.
Veterinarian and Animal Behaviourist