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Animals experience similar mental health disorders to humans, but drug treatment is controversial – ABC News

Animals experience similar mental health disorders to humans, but drug treatment is controversial
Long-time dog owner Mike Levy says his eight-year-old dog Brian is not your typical labrador.
"He's just quirky. He's eccentric in his behaviour. He's very, very sociable initially and then he'll just drift off," he says.
The Brisbane-based GP, who has owned four labradors over his lifetime, says these aren't Brian's only unusual behaviours.
He often keeps to himself. He's also been aggressive to other dogs — something Dr Levy says is unusual for a labrador.
"[Brian would] be absolutely sweet and charming, and then sometimes, suddenly, he would just turn and growl or even try and bite [other dogs]."
Brian was two when his aggressive behaviour began and, as a result, he was taken to a vet who diagnosed the aggression as a manifestation of anxiety.
Brian was prescribed the antidepressant fluoxetine, also known as Prozac, which he's been on ever since.
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Some of Brian's quirks remain — Dr Levy says he sometimes chews on a "blankie" for comfort, for example — but the Prozac has helped to stop the aggressive behaviour.
Brian is far from unique. Over the last two decades, there's been growing recognition that, like humans, animals can develop mental and behavioural disorders.
From horses developing a form of Tourette's syndrome to mice exhibiting behaviours that mirror autism spectrum disorders and fish experiencing depression-like symptoms, mental and behavioural disorders have been observed across the animal kingdom.
But there are important factors to keep in mind when it comes to diagnosing and treating these conditions in animals.
Mia Cobb, an animal welfare scientist at the University of Melbourne's Animal Welfare Science Centre, says scientists have learned more about the mental wellbeing of animals over the last two decades.
"All vertebrate animals are sentient, and that means that they have emotional experiences that matter to them," Dr Cobb says.
"Whether that's through social connection or whether it's through pain and distress, or feeling positive emotions … those mental experiences are really, really critical."
Animal experts warn pet owners to keep an eye on their furry loved-ones for signs of depression and anxiety.
But the exact factors that contribute to animals' poor mental health are difficult to pinpoint, and can have "a range of causes", Dr Cobb says.
That includes genetic factors, but also diet and environment, or the manner in which humans have interacted with them.
Dr Cobb says it's critical that an animal's behaviour is treated at an individual level.
For example, a dog regularly chasing its tail can be an indication of something like obsessive compulsive disorder. But this behaviour could also be the result of an injury, Dr Cobb says.
"We have to be really careful when we're looking at animals that are doing strange things behaviourally, that we don't jump to conclusions that just fit with our own experience, or that align with what we understand in people," she says.
"We need to be really objective."
Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, recommends a cautious approach to diagnosing mental or behavioural disorder in animals.
"We really need to be careful about using those terms [on] any non-human, including dogs, until we really figure out what's going on with [them]," he tells ABC RN's Counterpoint.
He says there's a risk that a diagnosis and medication could be "an easy way out" for owners to not support the needs of animals.
Some owners may not be providing the required care for their animals, or could misunderstand what is normal animal behaviour.
"[A dog] may do things that are human inappropriate, but they might be very dog appropriate. The easy way out, of course, is to beat them — use aversive training — or drug them," Dr Bekoff says.
But he says animals sometimes have complex needs.
"It's our responsibility to care for them."
The question of whether to give animals drugs that humans take, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, is "a controversial subject", Dr Bekoff says.
Dr Bekoff says he's in favour of prescribing drugs to animals carefully, given that some, like dogs, have similar brains to humans and can "suffer from a lot of the same psychological disorders".
"So I am a fan of [medication], but very carefully with a really good veterinary behaviourist."
As for Brian the labrador, Dr Levy says his dog is still quirky, but that "the medicine definitely has helped his anxiety".
He is a more content — and less aggressive — dog.
"He's a big, beautiful dog. He'll often just be sitting on the couch, munching on his blankets … [but] I think those are manifestations of his personality type," he says. 
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