Vets are treating increasing numbers of pets for psychiatric problems, such as “obsessive compulsive disorders”, anorexia and depression.
Ever since he became man’s best friend, he has barked at strangers, cowered from fireworks and howled when left alone by his owner.
Now, though, such seemingly natural behaviour in a dog is being put down to a range of psychiatric diagnoses – such as “hyperactivity”, “phobic behaviour” and “separation anxiety”.
A study has found that eight out of 10 dogs now exhibit such conditions, with vets warning of similar behavioural problems emerging in cats, rabbits and even parrots.
Other conditions being treated by vets include sleeping problems, anxiety, anorexia, “self-mutilation”, stress and depression.
The research comes ahead of the launch of a new Prozac-style drug for pets which is expected to be available in Britain later this year.
However, it has prompted warnings that owners and the veterinary industry could be “medicalising” normal animal behaviour and providing excuses for bad ownership.
The study found that 80 per cent of dogs exhibit some sort of behavioural problem. The most common was “hyperactivity”, with 60 per cent of dogs said to exhibit this behaviour either “frequently”, “sometimes” or “all the time”.
30 per cent were found to have “fears” or “phobias”, while 22.5 per cent were described as having “obsessive compulsive disorders” — such as excessive paw-licking or tail-chasing — and 12 per cent exhibited “separation-related problems” when parted from their owner.
The analysis, based on the responses of more than 1,300 dog owners who answered questions about their pets’ behaviour over a two-week period, was carried out by Dr Claire Corridan, a leading vet. “80 per cent of dogs have one or more behaviour problems. With 8 million dogs in the UK, extrapolated, that means 6.4 million dogs with one or more behaviour problems,” she said.
Dr Corridan, who is honorary secretary of the Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group — an affiliate of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association — suggested that this was a “conservative estimate”.
Her study involved many women and “dog lovers” who, she said, might be less inclined to identify problems with their pets.
“We are seeing more and more behaviour problems in our companion animals,” she added. “We all have busy lifestyles, so quite often cats and dogs are spending less time with their owners and less time being socialised.
“It’s now not such a big deal to say you are going to see a pet psychiatrist or behaviour counsellor.”
There is also a growing market for drugs which work in a similar way to human antidepressants. One such product, Reconcile – made by Eli Lilly, the company which developed Prozac – is expected to get a licence for use in Britain this year. There are already two other similar drugs being used by vets.
Dr Corridan said there was a risk that reliance on such drugs could mean the root causes of a pet’s problems were not addressed.
Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today, said: “Maybe people are becoming a bit more perfectionist and want their dogs free of all negatives. But this means you are not tolerating normal doggy behaviour. There are lots of things you would prefer your dog not to do, but that is part of having a pet.
“Also, if you medicalise your animal’s problem, it removes a bit of guilt and responsibility from the owner. You can say your dog is not a thug, he has a condition.”
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