Can Animals Have Mental Illness?

Mental health has traditionally been understood as an anthropocentric reality, Exclusive heritage of our species. Animals, despite their quality as living beings, would thus be deprived of the intellect and sensitivity necessary to suffer emotionally.

The truth, however, is that every emotion we can feel comes from phylogenetically very ancient areas of the brain, shared with a myriad of other organisms that inhabit this planet. Therefore, it shouldn’t be strange that we also have an emotional experience in common, and maybe even a problem in that area.

Depriving the rest of the animals of anything that could bring them closer to our reality would place them in an ideal setting to be used as a fungible resource, in all areas where they would be sensitive to it (breeding, industry, etc.).

In this article, we will abound in the empirical evidence that allows us to answer the simple question of: Can Animals Have Mental Illness? The aim of the text is to get to know better how they suffer from emotional distress and what situations precipitate it.

    Can Animals Have Mental Illness?

    In recent years, society has sharpened its sensitivity to the subjective experience of animals, so there is even a scientific specialty (animal psychopathology) aimed at studying this phenomenon. Eight of the most common emotional problems they can present will be mentioned in this text.

    1. Depression

    Depression is described as a state of sadness and a decrease in the ability to experience pleasure (anhedonia), which results from a loss that is perceived to be significant. It is one of the great disorders of our time, and there are signs that animals can also suffer when exposed to specific situations; like a loss of control over the environment, reduced incentives and even the death of a member of their group.

    The earliest scientific descriptions of animal depression come from work on learned helplessness, at a time in history when the ethical guarantees of laboratories were looser than they are today. These surveys aimed to explore negative emotional reactions of a living being during unfavorable circumstances over which he lacked control.

    Models were sought to generalize any discovery to humans, with the aim of extracting environmental risk factors that could predict the decline in his mood. In these studies it was used to introduce a dog inside a special cage, in the base two separate metal surfaces were located, which covered the whole with their extension longitudinally.

    The experimenter proceeded to electrify one of them, to which the animal responded by changing location and positioning where the stimulus was not present (on the sheet without electricity). The dog repeated this gently on all occasions when the experimental condition was administered, so that he could take effective control of his own environment (Experiencing discomfort that did not last beyond a brief moment).

    After several tests, the researcher applied electric current to both surfaces simultaneously, so that the dog did not find refuge on either side of the cage. In this case, he would first try to find a place where his discomfort would end, but by corroborating the lack of viable options, he would adopt an attitude of desperation. Thus, he would endure all the discharges with a very deep apathy, developing a gradual abandonment of his most basic needs.

    With studies like this, not only has evidence been obtained on how depression is triggered in men, but infer similar emotional states in other animals.

    2. Duel

    Some mammals (like elephants or chimpanzees) seem to have a clear idea of ​​what death is, and even they develop farewell “rituals” when a member of their flock dies. In fact, it is proven that they are not only aware of the finiteness of their organism, but also have rules regarding what is considered “good” or “bad”, adapting these notions to the realm of life. and life. the first and fearing the second).

    These animals go through a grieving process over the loss of a loved one, in a manner very similar to what has been described in classical models for human beings. They can resort to physical spaces to monitor the remains of those who came before them (“cemeteries” near rivers in which the corpses of dying elephants that have tried to water in their last cove accumulate), and even and they all exhibit behaviors suggestive of experiencing emotional absence (such as reduced food intake, sleep disturbances, etc.).

      3. Suicide

      There is evidence from marine mammals (such as dolphins) that they can make the decision to kill themselves in certain circumstances, Both in freedom and in captivity.

      The mechanism they usually use is to trap their bodies on the shores or on the shores, on a surface of the earth on which their tissues feel death. There have been many causes that have been postulated for this tragic phenomenon, until recently limited to the realm of the human.

      Research in this regard draws two different conclusions: that the dolphin’s autolytic behavior is due to spatial disorientation resulting from the use of sonar and other human technologies, or that it may be the result of unbearable suffering resulting from the use of sonar and other human technologies. of a physical pathology. In the latter case, it would be behavior similar to that which can be observed in humans, When the suicide is motivated by a state of very intense organic or emotional pain.

      4. Dependencies

      Addictions in animals are very rarely observed when they live in the wildSo the evidence for this comes from laboratory studies. Thus, it has been objectified that rats and mice show a preference for water mixed with substances such as cocaine, or simply with sugar (which is a natural enhancer), and the existence of the basic symptoms has been demonstrated. Any dependence: tolerance (need to consume more drugs to obtain the same effect) and withdrawal syndrome (discomfort linked to the absence of the substance).

      And are the brain structures involved in addiction, the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, common to a wide variety of animals. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that orchestrates the neural network; activating in the face of stimuli facilitating survival (sex, food, etc.), generating pleasure (high hedonic tone) and increasing their motivation. The effect of the drug would alter its allostasis and reduce the search for what was once gratifying, so that it would end up completely dominating the animal’s behavior.

        5. Activity anorexia

        Activity anorexia is an eating disorder that has been observed in rats under laboratory conditions. when their access to food is restricted and the indiscriminate use of an exercise wheel is permitted. Under conditions where both elements are present, the animal learns to put it to good use, but in the new situation, it resorts to physical exercise to the point of exhaustion or even death.

        When the problem is consolidated, the animal persists in this pattern (poor nutrition and strenuous exercise), even after re-establishing normal access to food. Theories suggest that this is behavior aimed at fostering the search for a new environment when the previous one has ceased to provide the material support necessary for sustaining life.

        6. Pica

        Itching is an eating disorder in which the subject ingests non-nutrient elements, such as sand or clay, and may suffer from parasitic infections or damage to the system. digestive. This behavior has been observed in farm animals subject to basic nutritional restriction, Like animal feed or grains, which develop the habit of eating inorganic elements (wood, plastics, etc.), digestion may be impossible. These animals include roosters, chickens and other poultry.

        At other times, the situation of deficiency (in phosphorus) allows herbivorous animals to eat the bones more easily in order to compensate for their deficit (osteophagy). While this is deliberate adaptive behavior, it can persist despite re-establishing proper diets, so its usefulness for personal survival would be diluted. Finally, the problem has also been demonstrated in cats, in which we can see the taking of threads or tissues, which can cause very serious problems in the intestines.

        7. Ritualized behaviors

        Ritualized behaviors often occur in wild animals that are subject to states of captivity, in which they have a very different physical space than they might enjoy in a state of freedom. These are repetitive behaviors that do not have a clear goal, And this does not contribute to the satisfaction of basic needs for their survival. They have been described in a wide variety of animals and represent an aberration of habits that prevents them from re-integrating into nature.

        In birds, alterations in song and chirping have been observed, which erode the ability to communicate with other individuals and damage the structure of organs necessary for feeding and cleaning. It is also common in animals used for exhibitions or shows, such as rhinos and felines, which, when living in small spaces for a long time, have their motor skills impaired (limited to turning in small diameter circles). Even when released into their home environment).

        8. Stress

        Stress is a physiological response common to many species and by no means exclusive to humans. There are many situations that can cause stress to an animal: from its confinement in small spaces to excessive handling (by people) or isolation from other members of its species. This last factor is essential in some varieties of primates., Who live inserted in hierarchical communities and may have disparate stress levels depending on their place in them (highest in mid-level non-dominant males).

        It has also been observed that social and environmental isolation can lead to self-injurious actions in many animal species, especially primates and birds, which can self-injure when caged or isolated from others. the environment (in socially poor spaces). Common self-punishing actions involve scratching and biting different parts of the body, as well as pulling off birds.


        Animals are sensitive to emotional issues, Especially when they are extracted from their natural environment (in zoos, circuses, etc.). Research on this issue is currently on the rise and is expected to become an area of ​​deep scientific interest in the future.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Bielecka, K and Marcinów, M. (2017). Mental distortion in non-human psychopathology. Biosemiotics, 10, 195-210.
        • Laborda, M., Míguez, G., Polack, CW and Miller, RR (2012). Animal models of psychopathology: historical models and Pavlovian contribution. Psychological therapy, 30 (1), 45-49.

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