top of page

Can wild animals have mental illnesses?

Blame it on humans when animals become mentally ill.

Extensive research shows that animals are beneficial for human mental health. But what about the mental health of animals?

Benefits we acquire from our Pets:

  1. Pets are one of the best ways to improve mental health.

  2. Dogs show us loyalty like no other.

  3. Pets may provide a sense of comfort.

  4. Owning a pet can reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

  5. Owning a pet can increase confidence and promote responsibility.

  6. There are physical benefits to owning an animal as well!

  7. Different animals may fit different personalities better than others.

  8. Emotional support and service animals can save lives.

  9. Children who have pets may grow up with a different level of respect and care than those who do not.

  10. Some jails and prisons have been providing prisoners with an animal to train.

But on the other side

I’ve heard those "domesticated" animals can suffer mental disorders; can wild ones have them? Or is this always something linked to humans?

The general answer is that animals do not become mentally ill when their problems are natural for them.

Would not survive

“Mental disorders are uncommon among animals in nature,” says Bjarne Olai Braastad.

Professor Bjarne Olai Braastad thinks that animals properly treated can avoid mental illness.

Braastad is a professor of ethology. He conducts research on the behavior and welfare of animals and the relationship between animals and humans at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) .

“Such disorders would have to be due to genetic faults, but the animals probably wouldn’t survive in nature,” he adds.

The reader is right in mentioning that interaction with humans is what can make animals go crazy.

Natural problems

Braastad says that wild animals encounter problems that are natural for them:

“They can live in fear of predators, have feisty neighbors or struggle to find food.”

Such fear and insecurity is a natural state for wild animals and it does not trigger mental illnesses.

The professor says that he has not seen any studies of mental illnesses among wild animals.

Still, wild animals do go crazy. For instance, a squirrel suddenly attacked three people in Germany a few years ago.

The squirrel was tested for rabies, but Braastad says wild animals can become violent for several reasons:

“The animal might suffer a brain injury, have faulty genes or have a painful injury or be stricken with sickness. Or it can be a panic reaction due to stress or insufficient access to food,” says Bjarne Olai Braastad.

Disney killed lemmings

There are tales of animals committing suicide. The ethnologist dismisses these:

“No, animals don’t kill themselves. Occasionally they do things that get them killed, but they are not consciously trying to put an end to it all.”

We have all heard about lemmings committing collective suicide by jumping off cliffs. A Disney nature film released in 1958 helped bolster this urban myth by tossing some lemmings off a cliff.

People are to blame when animals suffer mentally. This is a reason why there are laws protecting animals and stipulating their proper treatment.

Wanting to hunt

“Yes, animals in captivity can develop mental illnesses if they are held in environments entailing problems they can’t solve,” says Braastad.

A general example would be searching for things that they would find in their natural environment but cannot attain because they are closed in.

For instance, some animals desperately want to find social partners. Other examples are carnivores that want to hunt and horses and cows that want to graze in open terrain.

Compulsive actions

Animals can engage in compulsive actions if they don’t get what they seek and need. Braastad mentions animals in zoos and caged hens that wander back and forth incessantly along a wall:

“This is because they cannot escape the cage to look for food.”

Or dogs that go round and round in a circle because they lack something essential in their daily lives.

“This is behavior that has no function and is caused by strong frustrations,” says the researcher.

Animals can also suffer anxiety and depression.

Chastised for everything

“Anxiety is common among dogs and cats,” says Professor Braastad.

One source of anxiety is if their owner trains them wrongly and animals can’t fathom what they are supposed to do:

“If the animal is scolded no matter what it does it can’t understand what is right or wrong.”

Incorrect treatment

The ethnologist says the animals can avoid mental illnesses if we treat them correctly:

“Provide a good environment and take proper care of them.”

: “The animal keeper shall ensure that animals are looked after by appropriately competent personnel. Others shall have the competence necessary to carry out the activity they are involved in.”

Same therapy

So, animals in the wild do not become mentally ill. But the ones who live in our homes, in zoos or are exploited by circuses can develop mental illnesses just like humans.

We owe to them, we have to be aware of their Survival Instincts and learn to understand what they need to be able to feel they are in a safe and pleasing environment, going against their survival instincts can cause many disorders and mental incapacities. We need to remember they are "animals", not humans and they can be treated with respect and follow their instincts to make a better life for them and for us as well!

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page