Damn, that cat is crazy!
March 24, 2010 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Can animals go insane?

My mom performs a lot of cat rescues in rural New Mexico. Nearly all of these cats are rescued from conditions that I find just absolutely horrifying. Some of these cats need to be put to sleep out of mercy, but most of them get adopted out and go on to lead happy lives. How these cats manage to reintegrate amongst humans is beyond me.

Then I am reminded of a roommate's cat who was very nearly hit by a car. Before the incident the cat had a perfect long coat of fur. After, it went all wiry and ungroomed. Before, the cat was behaviorally normal, after it ... well, the only thing I can think of to describe the behavior is "suicidal": it would jump from very high places for no reason at all, often injuring itself. It became fascinated by fire and would often try to stick its paw into the flame from a gas stove, sometimes succeeding. It refused to have any kind of contact with humans besides its owner whereas before it loved all humans. But after the incident, the cat attacked several familiar people quite violently.

I've often thought that if a creature can think, it can go insane but, really, does this apply to animals besides ourselves?
posted by WolfDaddy to Pets & Animals (38 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a clip from Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World about penguins that have gone insane.
posted by zsazsa at 12:45 PM on March 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

In humans, trauma of all kinds bathes the brain in a variety of chemicals and hormones. In turn, these can cause structural changes in the brain, which, also in turn, can affect thinking, judgment, impulse control, etc. I imagine something similar can happen in animals.
posted by SamanthaK at 12:46 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would doubt it's "suicidal" behavior so much as it is either traumatic brain injury that leads to loss of instinctual behaviors (or the instincts not to behave in certain ways)--comparable to the types of behavior change we see in humans with TBI, or emotional trauma to the point that an animal becomes extremely fearful or violent and seems to behave bizarrely when compared to its previous states.
posted by so_gracefully at 12:47 PM on March 24, 2010

The only thing preventing the cats from taking over the world is a lack of opposable thumbs.

I doubt a cat can show symptoms that can be classified on the DSM and there are those out there who think that we have no way of verifying that animals actually have emotions (which, I believe, is the prevailing scientific opinion) but anyone who spends any time with animals knows that they have emotions.

When Wikipedia works again, this link will surely be fascinating. Emotions in Animals.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:47 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

What do you mean by insane? The idea of "insanity" is often used to indicate criminal insanity, as a state of lacking the capacity of responsibility for ones actions. To restate your question as "Can animals experience symptoms we would define within the rubric of mental illness," I would say - yes.

Learned helplessness in dogs is similar to, and a (perhaps somewhat obsolete) model for, depression. That said, it is very widely studied. Some aspects of mental illness involve disordered cognition, others involve more base physiological and physical responses. I don't think insane is a scientific term, so it's hard to apply scientific answers to your question.
posted by bunnycup at 12:47 PM on March 24, 2010

There was a post somewhere on MeFi that I can't locate that listed a whole bunch of self-destructive/neurotic behaviors horses develop if improperly cared for. That convinced me.
posted by griphus at 12:48 PM on March 24, 2010

With regard to horses: cribbing, for example. A compulsive habit that can lead to very serious problems.
posted by bunnycup at 12:50 PM on March 24, 2010

Well I think we have to be careful applying human emotions or emotional states to animals, but yes, in a broader sense that traumatic event(s) in an animals life can certainly cause them to act and feel things abnormally, relatively speaking.

'Course, for cats, that journey is a lot shorter than other animals.
posted by elendil71 at 12:52 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you can call it 'insane', but I fully believe that animals can have behavioural issues/alterations after trauma, and some are just born 'weird'. Some have to be put down because of it.

Feral cats can be rehabilitated, but it takes time and effort. Rather like giving a traumatized person ongoing therapy.
posted by sandraregina at 12:58 PM on March 24, 2010

I know that as dogs get older, they can develop canine dementia, aka doggy Alzheimer's. But it is organic in origin. My dog, at 15, is starting to show a few signs of it - it's more prevalent now that dogs, like people, are living longer. Some of the behaviors might be seen as "insanity", but I don't know if that's an accurate description.

As for cats, who the heck knows why they do what they do?
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 1:05 PM on March 24, 2010

There is some discussion of this in relation to the issue of animal suicide here.
posted by phrontist at 1:13 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the "gotchas" of no-kill shelters is, that without adequate resources, the animals go insane being confined. I'm going to bet this is a somewhat contentious argument, but it makes sense to me, and I'm just not in the frame of mind to go research this right now. But that's an area to explore.
posted by sageleaf at 1:17 PM on March 24, 2010

Early-stage symptoms of rabies are malaise, headache and fever, progressing to acute pain, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, depression, and hydrophobia.[1] Finally, the patient may experience periods of mania and lethargy, eventually leading to coma.

So I would say yes, but not due to trauma.
posted by TheBones at 1:18 PM on March 24, 2010

Depends on what you mean.

When most people use the word "insane" and apply it to people they mean something like "deprived of one's rational faculties." For example, schizophrenia is frequently marked by difficulties in abstraction, i.e. the ability to recognize theoretical relationships. So, for example, if showed a stool and a chair and asked "What do these have in common?" a normal person would almost immediately recognize that they're both for sitting, while a schizophrenic would probably mention that they both have four legs or that they are made of wood or some other very concrete relationship. As this forms a very significant part of human thought and interpersonal interaction, losing faculties like this one are a significant part of what we mean when we say "insane". It's also not clear that animals can hallucinate in any significant way.*

While some animals do arguable cogitate to some degree, I don't know of anyone that would describe them as "rational beings." There's equivocal evidence at best that animals are capable of abstraction in any real way. So in that sense, no, animals can't "go insane," because they weren't rational to begin with.

But if by "insane" you simply mean "significantly departing from the range of normal behavior" or "deprived of one's normal mental capacity" then yes, sure, for the reasons listed above, mostly having to do with trauma and/or age. The brain is weird, and while we don't really know how it does what it does, but we do know that if you screw with it stuff gets really weird. This is just as true for animals as it is for us, but since most of the most serious symptoms of insanity in humans have to do with our rational faculties, the range of "insanity" in animals is bound to be narrower. Less to mess with.

*Except for cats, who I swear see things that aren't there.
posted by valkyryn at 1:21 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Video of dog flipping out at its own foot. Yes, I think animals can go insane
posted by rebent at 1:24 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

A few weeks ago the great anti-slaughter blog Fugly Horse of the Day hosted an absorbing discussion on this very point, branching out from horses into other domestic animals. The comments contain lots of stories of temperamental and neurologically problematic pets, many traceable to physical causes (brain tumours showed up a lot), some attributed to genetics (repeated patterns of behaviour in certain pedigrees), others mysterious.

The consensus seemed to be that mental illness in animals is (a) well-documented and (b) multi-factorial. One standout comment:
Hi fugly, I’m a professional dog behaviorist, so I can only put my opinions as regards dogs..

Now that I’ve had 32 years of international dog competition experience… and have volunteered in rescues and shelters… and have adopted puppy-mill seized dogs… and bought top show/performance lines dogs… I have formed the following opinions.

At least 95% of dog temperament is genetic. A good, confident, friendly puppy at birth can be beaten, abused, left unsocialized, etc…. and he will still love everybody and be confident and NOT cringe when people pick up rakes or brooms. Witness the many known abused pitbulls on Animal Cops that are super friendly when carried off by the humane officers...

Conversely, a puppy with a bad temperament can be raised in the world’s most perfect conditions: many hours a day of socialization experience, desensitization programs, hand-fed meat and cheese by thousands of strangers, and still his inclination is try and bite anybody that he doesn’t like: men with beards, tall people, people with gray hair, etc.
The conversation was provoked by an incident at the Scottsdale Arabian show where a stallion apparently attacked its handler. The handler was taken to hospital with a fractured skull. Rick Synkowski's article on Post traumatic stress disorder in Arabian horses seems relevant here.
posted by rdc at 1:24 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

knew a cat who compulsively licked themselves in the same spot until they were completely hairless in that spot and kept licking until wounds appeared. they'd put the kitty cone on it, the wounds would heal, the hair would start to grow back and as soon as the cone was off, back to licking.
posted by nadawi at 1:26 PM on March 24, 2010

oh, and i knew 2 cocker spaniels that were sweet as pie, very friendly, loved kids, and then one day they just snapped. one bit the thumb nail off my brother, the other just got bitey and fighty and mean (separate owners, different times). i just always assumed cocker spaniels just turned into assholes at some point, though.
posted by nadawi at 1:31 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another point to keep in mind is that the term 'insane' as it is commonly used refers mainly to acting outside of human societal boundaries. For animals, it seems like it would be important to judge their behavior in relation to others of their species. To say something like "that dog is going insane!" when he slobbers all over your arm trying to get treats would only mean that a human would not act likewise.

Your example of a cat that was hit by a car doesn't suggest insanity as much as it does brain damage. Are you equating the two? Then I definitely believe that animals could go insane.
posted by amicamentis at 1:32 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heard of various instances of wild animals in captivity displaying compulsive behaviour that in a human would be considered signs of mental illness; here's a 1993 newspaper article mentioning one study on the phenomenon.
posted by Abiezer at 1:47 PM on March 24, 2010

Insanity -- any mental illness, really -- is generally more of a social concept than an objectively physiological one.

Also, I firmly believe this is one of those situations where we shouldn't think in terms that an animal can be human-like, but that humans are really just a type of animal. Was that orca at SeaWorld insane when it pulled its devoted trainer underwater? I know that my cat can figure out what I don't like, so I have no problem believing that an orca can reach the same conclusions, so I would presume it knew that was at least an unpopular move that might meet disapproval. But maybe it lost its rational faculties for some reason, maybe it was driven mad by confinement, maybe it just didn't like the fish that day. It's hard to diagnose in the human sense given the lack of communication.

But if you've ever seen pacing behavior at the zoo you know that animals can go stir-crazy.
posted by dhartung at 1:56 PM on March 24, 2010

Humans are animals, humans go insane. Animals do go insane, not just humans.
posted by fifilaru at 2:07 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can't captive parrots go a bit daft? I'm thinking of the feather-plucking behaviors that end up with results like this one.
posted by jquinby at 2:08 PM on March 24, 2010

Let's not forget my friend Kristin's now-famous psychotic hedgehog! (Act Three.)
posted by Madamina at 2:17 PM on March 24, 2010

From the original post:
Then I am reminded of a roommate's cat who was very nearly hit by a car.

I'm not sure why some of you are talking about traumatic brain injury. The cat wasn't hit by a car.
posted by malp at 2:20 PM on March 24, 2010

I remember in the discussions I've had with some people who have or went to go on to work at zoos that one of the reasons that many of the large animals have been moved to open enclosures was to prevent the development of repetitive behaviors. I remember particularly that tigers, lions, and other big cats would obsessively pace their cages, to the point of wearing through their paw pads, and would not do anything else. Those animals became impossible to work with, even dangerous to their handlers. I also recall elephants had a similar problem where they would rock their heads and bodies. I cannot find any sources because I cannot remember the names for the behaviors, but I would surely classify that as "insanity" in the sense of behavior that is destructive to the individual done by the individual without their ability to stop the behavior.
posted by strixus at 3:15 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a cat with hepatic encephalitis, where the liver doesn't work so toxins build up in the blood and cause the brain to swell. He had a couple of bad episodes which caused him to become psychotic. I don't mean being angry and going postal but the proper medical definition, suffering from psychosis, where he was seeing and reacting to things that weren't there. He also showed other distinct neurological symptoms which made it very clear to the vet what was going on, certain ways of moving, excess salivation, increased heartbeat, etc. It was clear the world he was living in during that time was not the one the rest of us were in.

Of course this had a definite physiological cause and removing the toxins and treating the swelling brought him out of it pretty quickly (and saved his life), but it's another example of how animals, having brains, naturally are susceptible to brain damage. It's not even a matter of being able to think, animals with very simple brains can have those brains damaged so their behaviour changes, I'm sure I've read studies about worms which no longer move towards the light, or whatever it is they would normally do, after having a specific part of the brain damaged for example. The cat you're describing wasn't trying to kill itself out of some emotional malaise but clearly suffered some kind of injury or illness that damaged it's brain leading to the messed up behaviour.

Behaviour problems due to what seems like emotional trauma, excessive confinement for example, also have physiological causes likely due to excessive stress response (the stress has an emotional cause of course so I'm not saying animals don’t have emotions, just that there is still a physical change to the brain). So it doesn't have to be a traumatic injury just something which effects the brain in a negative way.

I think valkyryn had a good comment above too.
posted by shelleycat at 3:48 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most assuredly.
We had a puppy that had to be put down.
At one year old, in the span of a week she went totally bonkers. Bit my wife. Attacked a cat that she had befriended. Attacked another dog that she lived with.
With the help of the vet we had her medicated.
A professional trainer (trained guard dogs for Russian police [he said KGB], sports figures, etc. Known for TV work also.) said she was "beyond hope".
Finally, the vet said that she developed rage syndrome.
posted by Drasher at 3:54 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

fwiw they do prescribe psychotropic drugs, such as Prozac for cats (and dogs I think)
posted by edgeways at 3:56 PM on March 24, 2010

knew a cat who compulsively licked themselves in the same spot until they were completely hairless in that spot

feather-plucking behaviors

These aren't examples of "insanity" or anything even approaching it, really... humans can have this disorder too: trichotillomania.
posted by illenion at 4:35 PM on March 24, 2010

knew a cat who compulsively licked themselves in the same spot until they were completely hairless in that spot ...

I know a cat like that; the vet contributed it to allergies. Switched his food and he stopped.
posted by inmediasres at 4:37 PM on March 24, 2010

illenion: "These aren't examples of "insanity" or anything even approaching it, really... humans can have this disorder too: trichotillomania."

your argument being that extreme OCD in humans <> insanity? hard sell, IMHO.

Without getting into what does or does not constitute insanity, if I reframe the question as 'do animals experience behavioral changes with an emotional component which appear antisocial and possibly self destructive,' I can say yes, based on personal experience.

My now-passed cat Simon was a big, strong fellow who was kept indoors mostly for yeaes, probably until he was about four. We had let him out regularly when he was just done being a kitten but after a move to a high-traffic urban neighborhood kept him indoors. Eventually he became profoundly determined to go outside (yowling, throwing himself against windows and doors for hours and hours, etc) so we opened the windows.

After about a year, we noticed he'd taken to aggressively keeping other cats away from our building. Sometime after that, a new cat, younger and larger and male, moved into a nearby building, and the fight was on. After about a month of intolerable ruckus, the new guy definitively won, and Simon stopped being an outside cat. In fact, he stopped being an indoor cat. He moved into a corner in a closet and remained there, except for very sneaky potty breaks, for two years, incessantly licking himself. His skin oozed something clear all the time. He smelled bad. He would purr if I or my wife would pet him, flee back to the closet if removed for any reason, and would run like hell if a stranger tried to touch him. Occasionally he would try to sneak out, which we did not permit, thinking he would curl up in a hidden spot and die.

After about two years, he emerged and stopped licking and oozing and smelling and hiding and sneaking and had a good ten more years of sweet somewhat shy indoor kitty life.

There's no one in the world who can convince me that he wasn't experiencing profound depression.
posted by mwhybark at 9:47 PM on March 24, 2010

posted by chairface at 9:49 PM on March 24, 2010

Not clear on what your issue is with my statement, mwhybark, as trichotillomania is not OCD. However, I tend to agree with your answer to your reframed question.
posted by illenion at 10:59 PM on March 24, 2010

I volunteered at an animal shelter briefly, feeding dogs. Some of the dogs were already at the front of their pens, excited to see us and excited for food; some of them were nearer the back but would come up to eat, and a couple were curled up in the very back of their pens ignoring us. The other volunteer, who had been there longer than me, said that the dogs at the front of their pens were fairly new arrivals; then as their stay went on, they started hanging out further and further back from the door. Once they stayed at the back of the pen and started looking the other way, they were usually too depressed to be a good pet anymore, and that's when it was time to euthanize.

"Insane" is a vague and kind of loaded term, but animals can suffer psychologically, and it can severely affect the way they function.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:30 AM on March 25, 2010

Gus, a polar bear in Central Park Zoo, was so bored that he got stuck in a compulsive repetetive loop (link c. 1994). In humans, there are so many mental illnesses that the casual term "insane" might refer to, that it's hard to say exactly what you mean by an insane animal, but this type of behavior certainly qualifies in my book. With therapy, he got better.
posted by aimedwander at 6:27 AM on March 25, 2010

Many of the compulsions described here fall under the larger umbrella of animal stereotypy.
posted by Iridic at 9:08 AM on March 25, 2010

There's a discussion of animal suicide in a recent Time magazine article.
posted by acridrabbit at 11:08 AM on March 25, 2010

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