When Laurel Braitman’s Bernese Mountain dog jumped out her apartment window, she knew something wasn’t quite right. Her subsequent research into animals with mental illnesses exposed her to a world where mice pluck out their own whiskers, dogs are prescribed Prozac and dolphins beach themselves in mass suicides. In her new book “Animal Madness,” Braitman examines the similar ways mental illness manifests in both humans and animals, and what we can learn from these parallels.

San Francisco band Grass Widow performs for its wildest audience yet: a gang of gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Laurel Braitman also produces a Music for Animals series, where musicians/bands perform for animals like buffaloes, donkeys, and sea lions. From Aubree Bernier-Clarke on Vimeo.

Laurel Braitman, science historian, author of "Animal Madness," senior TED Fellow, contributor to Pop Up Magazine and affiliate artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts

  • thucy

    Attributing mass dolphin “suicides” to “mental illness in animals” denies the reality of the vast damage humans have done to the oceans. A pod of dolphins that “commits suicide” may merely be indicative of bacterial waste/disease we’ve foisted upon this species.
    Similarly, without human “engineering”, there would be no “Bernese Mountain Dog”. How do we know the erratic behavior of the author’s dog isn’t due to human interference through excessive, manipulative breeding?

  • Jim Vickers

    I hear about you medicalizing the problem, as in giving your dog prozac, but did you consider the obvious solution to separation anxiety and get a second dog? Dogs are pack animals. — Jim, San Jose

  • tom knoll

    An old girl-friend of mine was an acupuncturist. She had a small, pit bull/boxer mix who, while very sweet, was rather hyperactive. After copious exercise every day, she would give the dog a strategic needle in a point near the forehead. Without this the dog would want to run all day, butinstead, he would be fast asleep within minutes. I hear you talking about the ppharmaceutical remedies, but what about Eastern medicine?

  • Stephanie Brown

    I’ve heard that dogs who are trained as service dogs for people with epilepsy are prone to developing epilepsy themselves. Do you know anything about that? If it is true, what is the mechanism at work that causes dogs to develop what I guess would be sympathetic epilepsy?

  • My boyfriend and I recently moved to an urban apartment with no outdoor access out of necessity, being forced to move in a short window of time. Our cat lost her ability to go outside. She is very high energy and loves to hunt. We are making her environment as nice as possible, climbing areas, toys, plants, etc. Now she is stress licking all the fur away from her belly and leg and I don’t know what more to do. I feel terrible, her world has shrunk tenfold but we had no choice. I don’t want to give her prozac as the vet suggested, because we can’t know how it is truly affecting her and it is a serious drug even for humans. We are trying a pheromone spray, but aren’t sure if it’s working…She hates other cats so new friends aren’t an option. What more to do?

    • geraldfnord

      I recommended a brand of toy in another response; here, I can only say that I have heard of good results from _short_ courses of benzodiazapine medications, e.g. lorazepam, so that the anxiety process gets a rest and is less likely to stay habitual. And if my own experience is any guide, though I am not a cat, such sedatives have fewer side-effects and clear from the system faster than does Prozac….

  • Wendy

    Very unfortunate reference to purebred dogs as “individuals” – they have been purpose bred for specific temperamental and physical characteristics for hundreds and thousands of generations. Genetic variation is very minimal. So these are not the same as wild strain individuals. People have forcably created fierce pit bulls. Yes, some are nice, but plenty aren’t and they are bred for their powerful jaws and athletic fighting ability.

  • Heather Watkins Winiecki

    I agree – purebred dogs have been ‘genetically modified’ to have certain traits, however environment is huge and each dog has an individual temperament. I have a Doberman and he does a fine job as a guard dog without any training, thanks to his bloodline – but he’s also super affectionate, loves children and is in training to compete in obedience and be a therapy dog! I’ve met many dobermans with sharp and soft personalities often in the same household so I think each dog is a combination of breed, training/environment and individual temperament. I must say my Doberman has taught me a lot about myself as far as patience and to be more aware of my own temperament – as has my chihuahua who’s more of a watchdog than my Dober (which chihuahuas we’re bred for, did you know??). I love your show and I’m adding this book to the list – I have several books I heard about on forum in the queue. Laurel I am so sorry for your loss but I am so impressed with how it motivated you to write this book. Thanks!

  • Chris OConnell

    It is fair and proper to anthropomorphize, as long as it is done carefully and consciously. Our complex emotions and mental processes most likely did not occur out of thin air. Complex mechanisms like this tend to evolve from similar ones. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to expect animals to have many of the same or similar processes as we have. This includes love, the most complex of all.

  • Dan Schmitz

    this is not comment about animals in captivity, but something that I observed from my home in Oakland. One day I looked up and saw three different species of birds flying together in what I could only describe as play. It was a crow, a seagull and a a much smaller bird that I could not identify. They weaved intricate circles in the sky together for at least 10 minutes. I have never sen this kind of behavior before, please comment.

  • About living arrangements – Sometimes we don’t have a choice, as I posted earlier, we were forced into a situation that changed our cat’s world from outdoor to indoor life. It may be only a year until our lease runs out, but in the meantime we have to cope. As someone who has worked on personal issues with anxiety, her stress licking is not something I take lightly and it does break my heart to see her bald spots. We are trying pheromone sprays and a cat-healthy environment, but nothing replaces the world that shrank tenfold for her.

    • geraldfnord

      It is my heartfelt wish that we don’t end up in a similar situation, and likewise that you get into a better one and cope until then. I’m not a paid shill, but: I strongly recommend the prey-simulating toys from GoCat, DaBoid and a mouse on a semi-rigid chain; nothing helps a cat relax than at least believing that it’s caught and tortured something smaller and cuter than it…catnip helps, too.

  • thucy

    I was skeptical but Braitman was very sincere in her replies, and she obviously really cares about the animals she observes, studies and loves. I also appreciate that she “gets” what has been our woeful human impact on animal lives and environments. Looking forward to getting her book.

  • Kathy

    Thinking today about the issues on Forum, Ray Montagne’s “All the Wild Horses” seems fitting. I feel worried for this planet and all the beautiful creatures on it that are innocent.

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