One in five pets could be mentally ill, veterinary association warns

Stock image.
Stock image.

PET owners are being warned this mental health week that their furry friends can also suffer from mental illness.

That’s the message from the nation’s peak animal medical body – the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).

AVA member and veterinary behaviour specialist Jacqui Ley said it is important to diagnose pets with mental illness and commence treatment early.

“While there is no hard evidence on the rate of mental illness in animals, it’s reasonable to conclude that statistically it’s the same as in humans – that is, one in five suffer from a mental health condition,” Dr Ley said.

“Given the number of pets that end up in shelters because of a behaviour-related problem, one in five is certainly a reasonable, possibly conservative statistic.”

“The key is for pet owners to seek veterinary advice if they notice unusual behaviour in their pet. “Some dog owners go direct to a trainer for help, but your veterinarian should always be the first port of call. They will then be able to advise on next steps.”

In dogs, mental illness commonly manifests in the form of:

• aggression towards people or animals• fears and phobias, for example of thunderstorms
• compulsion such as tail or shadow chasing
• cognitive decline in older dogs.

Dr Ley said some dogs even develop dementia or Alzheimer’s, which is going undetected.

“As a behaviour specialist, I don’t get a lot of owners of older dogs seeking help for serious cognitive problems, which is a concern because it means these problems are going untreated,” Dr Ley said.

“For an older dog suffering with cognitive decline, they’ll often display a loss of learned responses such as where it’s supposed to toilet or getting lost in its normal environment.

“They’ll also become increasingly anxious and even wake at night.

Dr Ley said pet owners would often dismiss these signs in their pet.

“But there’s normal aging and abnormal aging and we know that both dogs and cats can develop a form of Alzheimer’s,” she said.

“For dogs older than seven years that are displaying abnormal signs of aging, a visit to the veterinarian is critical in helping to identify and address any existing mental health issues.

“While we may not be able to cure the pet of the illness, through a combination of adapting its environment, modifying its behaviour and sometimes medication, we can manage the illness giving the pet a chance to live a quality, happy life.”