As soon as people find out I’m a veterinarian they start telling me about their companion animals. Mostly, the stories are fun anecdotes about the cute things the dog or cat did. However, a surprising number of the stories involve behavioral issues. Why does a dog howl inconsolably when left alone? Why does the cat pee in the suitcase whenever it gets brought out? I am always struck by the lengths to which we will go to diagnose and treat unwanted behaviors, using many of the same techniques and medications that psychologists and psychiatrists use to treat their human patients. It would seem that the line between human and animal is becoming increasingly blurred.
In Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, author Laurel Braitman use her own experiences, interwoven with stories of animals from around the globe, to show us how the emotional needs and well-being of animals are not so different from our own. From the heart-wrenching story of her dog, Oliver, to the heart-warming recovery of Noon Nying, the elephant, I found myself emotionally invested in each story, giving me insight into the minds and emotions of animals.
Animal Madness is a fascinating book, which I would recommend to anyone who has ever looked at an animal and wondered what they were thinking. Do the dog’s mournful eyes represent guilt or sadness, emotions that we thought were reserved only for humans? Does the bear, pacing figure eights in a pit, tell us something about mental illness in people? Throughout the book, Braitman tells us it’s acceptable to ascribe human emotions to the animals around us. Each of her stories reinforces a need to look at animals as more than instinctive beings, to instead consider them as adaptive and emotional parts of the environment and of animals around them.
The common thread in all of her stories is that when we put animals into unnatural situations, where they are unable to escape or have any control, some will become “insane.” This thread is most eloquently described in the epilogue, where Braitman pragmatically confronts the causes of animal insanity and offers many solutions. Most of us truly care for the animals around us and want what’s best for them, sometimes trying harder than we thought possible to fix the problems. Yet, if we truly do want to reduce animal insanity, then we must begin to question the sanity of keeping animals in situations that fit our lifestyle, but not theirs; whether it’s keeping elephants confined in traveling circuses, orcas in aquariums, laboratory mice in shoebox cages, or a dog in a crate all day while we’re at work. Some of the solutions are certainly not popular or easy, but after reading Animal Madness, you will have the insight to reconsider how we view and interact with the animals around us.
By Kenneth Litwak, DVM, PhD.