Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: Animal Madness (dogs, other animals, enrichment, strange doings)

Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, by Laurel Braitman* (Simon & Schuster, 2014, 373 pages, $28)

“. . . losing our minds. And finding them again. . . . “

Recent months have provided a plethora of incredible dog books: Chaser, Decoding Your Dog, Citizen Canine, Travels with Casey, (the latter two on DogEvals) and now, Animal Madness*, which may be the best (but it’s a close call)!

History - Not Always Dry

The title does not do the book justice but Laurel Braitman’s writing style is entrancing. Her PhD in the history of science may lead one to expect a dry historical tome – not so. It is entrancing (did I say that before?).

Oliver Begins the Tale

Braitman introduces Oliver, her adopted Bernese Mountain Dog, who develops Separation Anxiety, becoming destructive out of anxiety when left alone. Unfortunately, successful treatment is time-consuming, more than the average family can undertake. Oliver became the impetus behind Animal Madness as Braitman sought to understand her dog’s affliction in countless libraries and conversations with experts about animal stories of the past 100 years as well as across the world to Thailand and beyond.

What’s it All About?

Five percent of US military working dogs in combat develop PTSD. Could zoo animals be homesick for their natural environment and, thus, together with the ensuing boredom, exhibit signs and symptoms of mental disorders and emotional problems? What about marine mammals beaching themselves?

Veterinarians treat fear, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, PTSD, and perhaps even autism (animal conditions similar to but probably not identical to corresponding human conditions).

Whose Zoo?

Zoos are news after recent improvements in zoo design (no more pacing in boring, sterile-looking cages) and enrichment for the residents. Captive animals have physical and mental health issues similar to companion animals. However, zoos tend to consider drugs a “management tool” “to ease . . . transition to captivity,” and pharmaceutical companies “advocate . . . drugs to eliminate unwanted behavior.” (p. 196,7)

Many human pharmaceuticals came into common use in the 50s in parallel with similar (or identical but with different dosages) drugs for similar behaviors in animals (antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, etc.) True, there is a place for behavioral drugs in treatment plans but usually in conjunction with behavioral modification.

In the End, Oliver. . . .

Braitman brings the story of Oliver’s difficult and frustrating existence into every chapter as she reveals more about animal mental illness and recovery. Perhaps Oliver’s jump from the 4th floor kitchen window was a suicide attempt. In the end, Braitman brings us full circle, revealing that Oliver’s discomfort and suffering was finally ended for other medical reasons.

You will not soon forget Animal Madness; it may even move you to do something, if only to learn more and perhaps pass information on to others, for the sake of the animals.

(I would have preferred shorter chapters and more than six, an inconsequential flaw. But on page 149, a veterinarian incorrectly states that anxiety can be rewarded and, therefore, increase in frequency or be maintained.)

Animal Madness will surely make my short list, Best of 2014, for Braitman is an entrancing story-teller.

*TED talk: ‘Depressed dogs, cats with OCD – what animal madness means . . . .’

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