Pets on the Couch
CHAPTER ONE The Dog Who Ate Wineglasses When the Brain Short-Circuits
Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.
—A. A. MILNE
I sat in my office and watched a video of a male Golden retriever going insane.
The footage was murky because it was shot in a darkened house at night. The animal was sleeping peacefully on his blanket, the picture of domestic peace, until his muzzle began to twitch. In a gradual transformation reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the twitching became more rapid, and suddenly, the beast jumped up and attacked his own bed.
The Golden’s name was Comet, and the speed of his abrupt assault was worthy of his name. His targets varied, according to his owner. On the video, Comet attacked a blanket, snarling, snapping, and ripping the thing to shreds, but his owner told me that he also occasionally tore into his canine housemate, an English setter, sending the poor thing yowling in retreat. Somehow the violence appeared just as vicious when Comet’s prey was an innocent patch of fabric.
I looked from the monitor to the dog who lay placidly at my feet. This was the monster I had just witnessed going berserk? During the day Comet was a gentle dog who would happily play-wrestle with the English setter and always lose, content to end up on his back on the ground with the setter lording it over him. At night, though, he became aggressive. Even though the attacks were over in a few seconds, they were scary to watch.
In my practice as a professor of veterinary science specializing in animal behavior, I had encountered such episodes before. A bull terrier would wake abruptly in a rage and attack a door. Another bull terrier would try to attack his master, though I had advised her to attach him to a metal leash that was long enough for him to move around but not so long that he could reach her while she was sleeping. More than once she woke up with the dog snarling and snapping inches from her face. She was extremely grateful for that metal leash!
The cause behind each unusual behavior in pets is a puzzle to be solved. Sometimes they’re multiple. Sometimes they’re biological. But sometimes biological causes create psychological problems. Comet the loving, playful sweetie pie became Comet the snarling nighttime werewolf. Bully the loving pet and Bully the berserker. Every owner of every dog has a secret knowledge, at times relished, at times feared, that there is an animal in the house who back in the mists of time was once a wild beast. But when a dog inexplicably reverts to its wolflike nature, can anything be done?
I diagnosed a neurological problem in Comet, a possible seizure disorder, so I prescribed meds that had anticonvulsant properties. With a combination of clonazepam, a Valium-type anticonvulsant, and phenobarbital, Comet’s nighttime attacks reduced considerably.
For other dogs suffering similar issues, I used similar approaches. The metal-leashed bull terrier responded well to Prozac, which has antiepileptic as well as mood-stabilizing properties, and he stopped his
nightly attack. Later I was able to keep him calm by switching him from Prozac to nighttime melatonin, which is also considered something of an anticonvulsant.
Let’s stop a moment and take a deep breath. The preceding paragraph might strike you as worrisome. “Dr. Dodman, you propose to give my pet what?” Many pet owners prefer to hear about herbal remedies and nonpharmacological measures. And of course we often employ them, too. But I’m going to suggest that treating animals with human medications is not an instance of Big Pharma run amok. In the course of this book, I hope you will come to see the simple, practical truth. Modern medicines work. They alleviate suffering and save lives.
Such treatment approaches weren’t arrived at by luck, and weren’t random stabs at a cure, either. I knew how to address Comet’s problem because, long before he came into my examining room, I had embarked upon a quest to understand such bizarre aggressive episodes. I delved into the available research on animals and had also reached across the species barrier to investigate the basis for sudden unexplained aggression in humans. When I put it all together, it seemed clear that there was a neurological trigger for what was happening.
The dogs weren’t choosing to go berserk. Their attacks weren’t the result of bad dreams. The afflicted animals were experiencing seizures, the result of misfires deep within the brain.
In my search of the available case histories I encountered many accounts of nocturnal seizures, and most were expressed as aggression. Why did such episodes occur only at night? Once again, the available case histories have long shown that sleep can promote seizures in people. It turns out that some natural mechanisms that inhibit behavior are switched off in deep sleep.
Back then, at the dawn of my career as an animal behaviorist, we didn’t know much about the neural processes involved in this often upsetting and sometimes dangerous behavior. So I recruited fellow
researchers to develop a way of addressing it. Our approach was remarkable in one respect: we proposed to treat animals with many of the same treatments that are successful in healing people.
On the one hand, our method might seem obvious. Human beings and canines are both vertebrates, both mammals. We are evolutionary relatives—distant relatives, but relatives all the same. Complex partial seizures are more common than grand mal seizures in people, so it made sense to assume that dogs had a high incidence of complex partial seizures, too. Why shouldn’t we find common treatments of our shared pathologies?
But science doesn’t assume. Science proves. Obvious as our hypothesis might be, there was a problem verifying it: How could we really tell when partial seizures were happening in dogs? People can describe experiences to their doctors, but animals obviously cannot. This probably explains why complex partial seizures remain undiagnosed by many veterinarians.
Despite the obvious success of the treatment regimens I was developing, many veterinary behaviorists were skeptical that seizure-based aggression existed. An eminent animal behaviorist, Dr. Ilana Reisner, who did her research for her doctoral thesis on springer spaniel aggression, stopped short of saying definitively the condition was seizure-based. One widely accepted textbook labeled sudden violent aggression in dogs as “idiopathic,” a wonderful five-dollar word that simply means the cause is undetermined. It’s what vets and doctors alike say when they are loathe to pronounce their least favorite three-word phrase: “I don’t know.”
For all this academic back-and-forth, animals were still coming to vets in distress. Successfully treating patients was one thing. Verifying the cause of their behavior was quite another.
A vital step along the way came when I saw Brock, a really big,150-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever, whose aggression was completely out
of control. The dog had put his owner in the hospital on more than one occasion. He was such a beast that he would even steal wineglasses and crush them in his jaws in front of his terrified owner. If the owner attempted to intervene, the dog would attack her viciously.
It was hard to understand how this much-bitten owner remained loyal to her dog, but love often wins out with pets. Fortunately, she brought Brock in to see me, and I in turn discussed the case with Dr. Klaus Miczek, a fellow Tufts professor, who agreed that partial seizures, or temporal lobe epilepsy, might be behind the savage attacks.
Dr. Miczek told me of a human equivalent called “episodic dyscontrol,” a seizure-based condition that makes people respond violently and disproportionately to trivial triggers. Since this kind of condition existed in humans, it was conceivable that it could appear in dogs. It also gave us an encouraging sign for a possible treatment.
Klaus and I, together with veterinary neurologist, Dr. Johann Thalhammer, gave the dog an EEG, an electroencephalogram, which is used to detect abnormalities in electrical impulses in the brain. Sure enough, the results of Brock’s EEG indicated a large complex spiking of electric impulses in the temporal lobe region, which in both dogs and people is considered “command central” of emotional control. The electrical activity detected in Brock’s case was a sure sign of episodic dyscontrol or partial seizures.
Since a single case isn’t enough to sustain a hypothesis, we examined two other dogs who had violent uncontrolled aggression and found that they also displayed similar abnormal electrical activity. All three dogs suffered bizarre mood changes right before their attacks began, then explosive aggression directed at people or objects.
The poor dogs! They weren’t choosing to be aggressive. Their behavior wasn’t purposeful. All three dogs responded well to a treatment of phenobarbital, a medicine also widely prescribed to humans in cases of epilepsy. This was not coincidence. What works in people turns out to
work well in canines. All the owners of the treated dogs considered the improvement unqualified successes. They had saved their dogs.
So, happy endings all around. It’s a treatment approach that I’ve used over and over throughout the years since, from Brock all the way forward to Comet. The pattern of positive outcomes points to a fundamental truth that I have spent my whole career attempting to fully understand. If I find behavior in an animal that I don’t understand, I often look at similar behaviors in our own species to discover an effective method of treatment. Seizures in dogs? Why not look into the history of seizures in humans?
Despite publication of our evidence for the existence of episodic dyscontrol in dogs, however, some of my colleagues still refuse to accept it as possible. It is often hard to convince people that what they have believed for years is not true. I usually calculate that it takes about twenty years after publication of a new concept for it to enter the mainstream and become accepted. If that is the case, then the present time is just about right for that to happen.
In these specific instances—in the cases of the canine wineglass crusher, the metal-leash strainer, the fearsome blanket ripper—we just may win the battle to save animals’ lives. But the wider war is ongoing. The real fight to save animals from destructive behavior—and from being euthanized or destroyed—is just beginning.
Are animals like us? Are we like them? Do they have intelligence? Do they have emotions? Can they suffer as we do? Most people who live with pets answer these questions with a rousing affirmative, as do veterinarians like me. Deep in their hearts, people who routinely work with livestock and farm animals would also agree—even though they might be loath to admit it, since their jobs may depend on ignoring such hard truths.
But there is one group that stubbornly resists acknowledging the
validity of such propositions. Powerful sectors of the scientific community deny suppositions that seem perfectly obvious to lay people. The “real” scientists inform us that we must interpret animal behavior in mechanistic terms, rather than attributing what we see to higher brain functions.
Is your cat jealous? Does your dog exhibit empathy? Is a horse who continually paces her stall experiencing anxiety? No, no, and no, answer these stern arbiters of scientific purity. It’s all reflex, not cognition, they say. Our pets are different from us, they say, and cannot share our thought processes.
Wary of appearing less rigorous than befits a scientist, the naysayer police protect the borders of the realm of Homo sapiens, turning away incursions from the wider animal kingdom. They are the champions of human exceptionalism.
So, okay. Maybe we just have a difference of opinion. Perhaps we are being soft-headed when we think Fluffy looks happy today when she looked sad yesterday. The average pet owner believes one way, the research scientist another. What does it really matter?
It might make no difference at all, except for one thing: animals are dying by the thousands because of obstinate, outmoded notions about their emotions and behavior. As a society, we have refused to make strides in understanding our pets because we are locked into old biases that limit vital avenues of research. As surely as the carriage horses who clop along the lanes of New York’s Central Park, the scientific community wears blinders in its approach to animal behavior.
Meanwhile, “bad behavior” is the number one killer of pets in the United States.
What? How can that be? The leading killer of dogs and cats surely must be something like cancer, heart ailments, or simple old age. The toll of these diseases is, of course, high, but none can match the slaughter done in the name of bad behavior. It happens too often even to be
remarkable. What is the answer when a dog turns aggressive and starts attacking people? When a cat becomes incontinent and fouls a new carpet? Off to the pound with it! Euthanasia is such a bland name for what actually occurs. A pity, but it has to be done.
But does it have to be done?
I’ve devoted my professional life to finding answers to why an animal’s behavior goes awry. My method is simple: I emphasize similarities rather than differences between humans and other animals. What works in treating people who suffer from persistent anxiety? What serves to lessen obsessive-compulsive tendencies in humans? Could the same treatments work on pets?
I call my approach One Medicine.
Using the principles of One Medicine, I’ve treated anxiety in pets with human antianxiety medication, obsessive-compulsive disorder with prescription anti-obsessional drugs, hyperactivity with stimulants, complex partial seizures with conventional anticonvulsants or an anticonvulsant herbal derivative. If I were a physician, none of these measures would be noteworthy. But I am a professor of veterinary science, and I’ve experienced pushback from my fellow scientists, including reactions from raised eyebrows to out-and-out obstruction.
Once I was on a conference call with other scientists to decide funding for research into OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. I ventured that a proposed genetic study employing dogs as a model of the human condition was worthy of funding. A lively discussion ensued among the assembled throng and I fielded several questions through the speakerphone. There I was, Professor Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, a veterinarian wired in to a large gathering of MDs—most of them psychiatrists specializing in OCD treatment.
Then came a disembodied voice from one of the psychiatrists on the line. “You will never be able to discover anything about human beings by studying dogs,” the voice said sternly. “I am going to black
ball this grant.” I never nailed down who the speaker was, but to me, he represents a whole host of pigheaded conservatives who remain mired in the past. His voice haunts me. I am determined to prove him wrong.
On a kinder and gentler note, I recall a long conversation I once had about animal intelligence with a former Harvard professor named Dr. Marc Hauser. Trim, lively, and goateed, Marc was deep into the study of primate behavior and animal cognition. We agreed on practically every aspect of animal intelligence, including an animal’s ability to learn in various ways, to modify its behavior according to circumstance, and its experience of primary emotions.
A final step, however, that Marc was not prepared to concede, was to accept that an animal may have what are termed “secondary emotions,” reactions such as shame, depression, or dismay, which arise after an initial blast of primary emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness. Secondary emotions are widely considered a human-only realm. They stem from more complex chains of thinking, are oftentimes mixed, and seem to require sophisticated mental processing.
Professor Hauser readily accepted that secondary emotions might occur in animals. But his bet was that they did not.
“When we see a starving child on the television,” Marc said to me, “we feel compelled to do something to help. That’s empathy, which promotes altruism. Show me a dog who sees another dog in distress and appears upset for that other dog and acts distressed or tries to help and that may change my mind.”
A couple of years later, of course, a celebrated video appeared on YouTube showing a dog dragging an injured second dog by the scruff to safety from the fast lane of a three-lane highway. Additionally, there’s documentation of a mother cat going back into a burning building to rescue her kittens. A book about Ginny, The Dog Who Rescues Cats, tells the story of a schnauzer–Siberian husky mix who saved more than
900 sick or injured felines. There are many, many examples of animals behaving altruistically. You likely know some stories yourself.
So what in the world is the problem here? Why the resistance? At times it seems as though some scientists are the ones with conditioned reflexes, not animals. They hold stubbornly to their mistaken beliefs, all evidence to the contrary.
The answer goes back to the views of the philosopher René Descartes in the seventeenth century. Descartes avowed that animals are automatons, incapable of cognition or emotion. Such a view led to horrific cruelty to animals because the scientists told themselves that the creatures could not feel. They actually interpreted the awful screams and bellowing during vivisection and other inhumane practices as mere meaningless reflexes.
The views of Descartes were later reinforced by C. Lloyd Morgan, an extravagantly bearded grandee of British zoology, a professor of psychology and ethics at the University of Bristol in the early twentieth century. He developed a fundamental rule that he applied to the study of animal behavior. In essence, his idea was a variation of the famed “simple is best” principle called Occam’s razor. It became codified under the lofty name of Morgan’s Canon:
In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.
In other words, don’t look for human parallels in animal behavior. Morgan’s Canon later became an unalterable law, as though it had come down from Mount Sinai inscribed on stone tablets. The “default” position in animal research became the automaton model: no secondary emotions, no cognition, no questioning of the canon.
Skepticism has an honored and well-deserved place in science. Morgan’s Canon turns a skeptical eye on all those who would anthropomorphize animals. Perhaps it is proper to wince when Mrs. Magillacuddy tells us that her cat speaks to her with its eyes. A similar principle in literature warns against the “pathetic fallacy”: attributing human emotions to inanimate things (“the sky scowled,” “stubborn was the looming cliff”). Sloppy thought and sentimental conclusions are surely elements to be guarded against.
But Morgan’s Canon can no longer exist as unchallengeable law. The time for such a limited view of animals is long past. Instead of keeping scientists on the straight and narrow in the quest for truth, it has now become an inhibitory maxim. Such restrictive doctrines not only curtail promising humane research but also directly contribute to the wholesale killing of countless animals.
I fight the good fight every day in my job as director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School. Our work has one main purpose: to create happier, better-behaved animals so that owners are less inclined to give up on them—and give them up. Our efforts focus on the striking similarities between animals and human beings, both in their behavior and in their emotional and psychological problems.
We use what we discover in our research and clinical work to design treatment programs for the animals that alleviate a wide range of conditions, many of them instantly recognizable from their prevalence in humans. These include aggression, fears and phobias, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, canine autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Tourette’s syndrome.
On a regular basis, I diagnose psychological conditions in my nonhuman patients that also occur in humans. These behavioral issues might be readily treatable, just as they are in human medicine, but most animal owners are simply unaware of the possible options. Once the diagnosis is clear, the treatments can be simple and straightforward.
Sometimes behavior modification training is the answer or sometimes small changes in the pet’s diet or environment. Sometimes a prescription drug is necessary. Many of the drugs we use with animals are the same as those used by medical doctors for human patients.
If we want to prevent unnecessary relinquishment of pets to shelters and pounds—as surely we all do—then word must get out about these successful treatments for unwanted, troublesome behaviors. That is why in this book I’ll tell you about some of the most interesting emotional problems that I have encountered in a variety of species.
The word for my profession came into the language in the seventeenth century, from the Latin veterinarius, which means “of or having to do with beasts of burden,” but in colloquial usage meant “cattle doctor.” Ordinary creatures such as dogs and cats were easily dismissible in the 1600s, but cattle, well, cattle were cash cows, so to speak. People depended on them for their livelihood, and so early on they were deemed worthy of doctoring.
But because the veterinary profession has generally focused on doctoring, they haven’t paid much attention to treating—or analyzing or understanding—unwanted behavior in pets. Behavioral medicine still goes untaught by the majority of veterinary schools and its core principles remain a mystery to many veterinary practitioners. The American Veterinary Medical Association took until 1993 to establish the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Of the thirty or so vet schools in North America, only a dozen or so regularly teach their students about clinical animal behavior. A fledgling vet can easily graduate without significant training in this vital area—and that’s a great shame.
I was shocked to hear a professor of veterinary medicine say that “animals are automatons and their behavior is simply a result of a series
of conditioned reflexes.” He was a cardiologist, but may as well have been a car mechanic for all the insight and empathy he displayed. Another veterinarian once said—in public—“You don’t have to like animals to be a veterinarian, just as you don’t have to love toilets to be a plumber.”
If I ever heard such sentiments from a vet about to treat my own pet I’d run the other way. I believe without a doubt that empathy and affection for animals go a long way toward making a good veterinarian.
The practice of One Medicine preserves scientific rigor, but at the same time embraces the obvious shared biology of human beings and nonhuman animals. Consider Morgan’s Canon not as an unalterable law, but as a human-created principle that can be useful and limiting in equal measure. Open our minds, open our hearts to the unconstrained possibilities in the interplay of pets and people.
Can we treat animal behavior with the same medicines, therapies, and approaches we use on humans? To me, the answer is an obvious yes. You could effectively teach medical students brain anatomy using the brains of dogs. Transferring what you learned about dog brains to knowledge of human brain anatomy would be a breeze.
It’s not just brain anatomy that is similar across the species. Animals in general, and mammals in particular, have many of the same inner workings as humans do. We share physical similarities and we process and respond to incoming sensory information in much the same ways. Under the hood, so to speak, in terms of the nervous system or other organ systems, there is not much difference in how things work. I’ll tell you more about how we can learn about animal behavior by carefully examining the animal who stares back at us from the mirror.
Why use a pill developed for humans to treat behavior in animals? It may seem outlandish, yet all our medicines—every single pill humans place into their mouths, every injection, every balm, every suppository, even—was
first tested, developed, and refined using animals. Are you a man or a mouse? Well, in pharmacological research, mice lead the way, and humans follow.
It’s happening right now. As you will see in the following pages, One Medicine has already yielded astonishing results. We stand on the cusp of a revolution. The excitement and optimism I feel are intoxicating. I hope they turn out to be contagious.