Sunday, September 27, 2015

What is mental health when it comes to animals?

uncertain dog
Are the animals you live with mentally healthy?

“Mental health” is a phrase we use loads in relation to humans, but when do you use it in relation to an animal? I’m currently undertaking an online course on small animal behaviour taught by behaviourist Dr Jacqui Ley through the Centre of Veterinary Education.

According to the World Health Organisation, at least in relation to Homo sapiens, mental health is defined as:
…a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
That's an interesting definition which I am sure some would contest, but nonetheless its a helpful referene point. Of course we can’t ask animals about their stress levels, so we rely on other indicators, mostly behaviour.

According to Dr Ley, a mentally healthy animal should (with some allowance for variation according to age and condition):
  • Demonstrate self-care behaviours like eating, drinking, toileting, grooming, resting;
  • Explore its environment and show play behaviours;
  • Understand how to meet its needs (food, water, rest, play, social contact) or understand the signals that these things are available;
  • Be able to predict favourable and unfavourable outcomes from interactions with its environment and avoid or cope with unfavourable outcomes;
  • Have appropriate social interactions with members of its own species. This would include greeting, play, resting, sexual and aggressive behaviours, depending on the species and situation;
  • Have appropriate social interactions with members of other species with which it is socialised (including humans).

Any variation does not mean an animal is automatically mentally unhealthy. For example, older animals are less likely to demonstrate exploratory and play behaviours, and young animals need to learn about what is an “appropriate” interaction with a member of its own species (its why adult cats allow so much from kittens before giving them a warning slap when they get too annoying).

Ensuring that companion animals are kept in an appropriate environment that enables them to express their normal behaviour (for example by moving around, building nests if appropriate or exercising) is key to their mental health. 

Last week I met a couple whose dog was kept entirely indoors. They didn’t walk the dog simply because they didn’t feel it was important until we discussed it. One known trigger for behaviour problems is impoverished environments. Housing our animals in appropriate environments and ensuring they are stimulated is just as important for their mental health as it is for ours.