A recent survey found that there has been a surge in the number of pet owners seeking treatment for depression and anxiety in their animals. In fact, pet insurance firms paid £75,000 in 2019 to treat mental disorders, including OCD and agoraphobia. This is a 50% rise from 2018, suggesting that as mental health becomes more talked about in the human population, it is simultaneously taking trend in the pet world.

It has long been recognised that many animals have behaviour problems, to the extent that some vets specialise in treating them. But is there any validity to the idea that these issues may have been caused by mental health problems? Can animals have mental health problems as we understand it?

We already know that animals can become seemingly depressed following the death of a companion that they spend a lot of time with, although it’s harder to say for certain whether they feel this on an abstract level. Animals kept in abusive circumstances can develop what we might call PTSD in humans. They can become mentally disordered. This isn’t disputed. But, it is generally assumed that this stress response is distinct from the more profound psychological dysfunction that is found in humans. Many people suffer from depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses which have no obvious cause and are not, on the face of it, a simple response to a stressful environment. It seems that mental illness comes in tandem with high intelligence. There is an implication that mental illness requires an initial concept of personal insight that only humans possess.

However, that may be an elitist view. For one thing, most mental disorders only manifest themselves because we are able to communicate with each other. Mental illness can’t be physically observed. As we can’t talk to animals, we have to guess how they’re feeling based on overt behaviour. But it has been observed that some dogs obsessively lick their paws or tails in what could perhaps be considered to be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, where there is no history of abuse. Maladaptive behaviour has even been observed in wild animals; they can seem listless or jittery in a way that is not normal, and could mirror a form of depression and anxiety. It has even been suggested that some animals suffer from autism-like disorders, where they seem to not understand the communicative behaviours common of their species.

It’s a very complex topic, but it may be the case in the coming years that more pet owners will ask their vets about their pets’ mental health. The question becomes whether it is something that should be taken seriously, and if vets in the future should be taking further training to recognise signs of mental illness in animals.