Animals and Mental Illness, Ants Eat Toenail Clippings?

Heymatt: I’ve been watching my crazy cat and was wondering if animals have mental illnesses like people do. We get schizophrenia and paranoia and other things. Are animals vulnerable to them too? Sometimes I wonder about my cat... — Anonymous, via email

I’ll leave you wondering about your cat. No matter what the science guys say, personally, I’m convinced that cats are mad. I won’t bore you with my reasoning. You know what I mean. But you cat people seem to love it, so I’ll let that go, too. However, a bipolar elephant is another thing altogether.

And a schizophrenic rat is yet another thing altogether. However, we’ve got some of them, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health unit of the National Institutes of Health, your government in action. Of course, no one is saying that the schizo rats have the same neurochemical basis for the strange behavior, which in humans might even be partly genetic in origin. What we’ve managed to produce are rats that exhibit major behavioral traits of human schizophrenics; so by our definitions, they’re schizoid on the outside but not the inside. If you’re prone to picketing university labs carrying signs that say, “Rats are people too!” maybe you’d better move on to the breast-augmentation ads. The situation is sort of poopy, I think. But science must march on, and sometimes that means it must step in horse puckies from the equestrian unit in front of them.

Doctors of people believe the hippocampus, a part of the human brain, is quite involved in schizophrenia. So if we’re using rats as our brain model for science purposes, the animal doctors inject a toxin into the rat’s hippocampus and wait a few weeks or months for human-like schizophrenic behaviors to appear. And appear they do. So this, they say, is how we’re going to make progress in understanding and treating the sometimes baffling diagnosis of schizophrenia.

However, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the question Anonymous asked. Nameless wants to know if one day you’re sitting around the house and suddenly your iguana develops multiple personality disorder. Pish, tosh, you might say. Well, if you say it, don’t say it around the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. This is a subspecialty of the veterinary profession that helps zookeepers, pet owners, dog trainers, whoever, diagnose and remedy unacceptable animal behaviors that are not the result of bad training or bad environments. (Those two probably account for the vast majority of bad pet behavior. Clueless owners/caregivers are at the heart of those dilemmas.) They’re not dog trainers or dog psychics; they’re regular vets. Mostly they see animals who are exhibiting typical behaviors for their species but the behaviors are carried to some terrible extreme. The animals are examined medically then behaviorally, the symptoms are considered, then a plan of meds (if called for) and much behavioral therapy are drawn up for the beast in question.

Of course, vets can’t say, “Your dog/elephant/snake is schizophrenic.” That’s a diagnosis that requires the ability to talk to the patient to get details about those delusions and hallucinations. Behaviors might be schizo-like (withdrawing from social contact, hyper-response to stress, and poor memory), but in the vet’s office, the animal is suffering a “mood disorder.” These vets also suspect some dogs inherit a genetic component that makes them susceptible to these behaviors if the animals find themselves in a stressful environment. But dog and cat behavioral genetics have a way to go before anything can be said definitely.

So, what’s the answer. It seems that animals don’t suffer human-type mental disorders, but they sure can act weird. And that weirdness can be diagnosed as an animal-type mental disorder, perhaps even inherited, though we don’t know enough about that yet. We don’t know what Anonymous means by her cat acting weird, so we can’t give a prognosis. But considering it’s a cat, it’s probably normal behavior designed to drive humans a little crazy.

Hey, Matthew: I left some toenail clippings in the sink, and when I got home later there was a stream of ants trying to carry them off. Mainly they go for things like Popsicle sticks and honey. Why would they possibly want toenail clippings, and what were they planning on doing with them? — J.B., San Diego

What a charming picture you paint of hygiene in the B. household. I’d say you were lucky the ants stopped by to clean up. But since you’ve asked, we dialed up UCSD’s Cooperative Extension and got the full ant/toenail picture. The ants (likely Argentine; hear their little accents?) were out foraging for whatever they might come across. One guy found the toenails, whistled to his buddies, and they descended on them. Toenails are keratin, the perfect protein for the ants to chew up and feed to their larvae. If you had a few dead animals or a pile of flies around your house, they would have liked that, too.

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