Mental Retardation in the Animal Kingdom?
January 24, 2006 4:31 AM   Subscribe

Are there incidents of mental retardation in the animal kingdom? If so, how does it manifest itself?
posted by ubueditor to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've seen a cat that was born with brain damage. It's vocalisations were all messed up - weird sounds, inappropriate sounds. On top of that it was really dumb - would repeat behaviours that didn't work, long after the point a regular cat would have given up.

Then there are the various experiments undertaken on animals over the years, any of which could occur naturally, I guess (I'm thinking of the split brain experiments specifically, which were originally tried out on cats).

Animals suffer from chromosomal abnormalities just like people do - Ts65Dn mice are used in Down syndrome research, and show symptoms such as impaired learning.
posted by Leon at 4:45 AM on January 24, 2006

My mum has a stupid cat - the vet explained that there's the same variation in ability in cats as there is in humans, and we just ended up with a dumb one. Manifestations include walking around the open door to come in by the cat-flap, and an inability to detect if food is "off" (so dried biscuits only, as on the few occasions we forgot to clear up the wet stuff in the summer, the digestive consequences were fairly messy).
posted by handee at 4:49 AM on January 24, 2006

My dad has a totally retarded inbred house cat. You can tell when you looks at her that something is amiss — her head is too small for her body and her eyes are the wrong shape. She's sweet though, so I love her.

Some types of mental or physical disorders are caused by a genetic population that is too small. This is common in Dalmations, many of whom are deaf due to poor breeding. As for "retardation," I can't think of any specific examples.
posted by Brittanie at 5:23 AM on January 24, 2006

I have seen wild deer with mutations, some with obvious mental, shall we say irregularities. I was personal witness to a deer that died after a black powder hunter shot at it and missed, spooked the deer causing it to run into the very tree from which the shot came and break its neck. The buck had severe facial and head asymmetrical deformations (yes, before running into the tree), including antlers that curved downwards on one side of the head.

It is possible that the deer's deformations caused it to have issues with vision and thus the tree, however something in the deer's behavior was simply abnormal. I'm no expert in odocoileus virginianus behavior, but I can at least tell when a deer just ain't quite right in the head.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:00 AM on January 24, 2006

I think my puppy could be diagnosed with "Gender Identity Disorder", but I'm not sure why.
posted by davy at 7:28 AM on January 24, 2006

Surely there are "slow" animals born. Without the support mechanisms provided by human culture, I'd imagine they're likely to be eaten, to die of malnutrition, or to succumb in some other way.
posted by killdevil at 7:39 AM on January 24, 2006

A quick search turned up this reference:
Mental retardation in animals. In N. R. Ellis (Ed.),. International Review. of. Research in Mental Retardation,. Vol. 4. New York: Academic. Pp. 263-309. Might be worth a look.

Animals suffer from chromosomal abnormalities just like people do

Same goes for developmental problems in the nervous system. "Mental retardation" is probably too vague a term, btw, given the difficulties of defining "mental" in animals.
posted by mediareport at 7:46 AM on January 24, 2006

Evaluating the cognitive abilities humans is reasonably complex even when you have a fairly willing participant willing to answer questions or perform tasks. Traditionally, "mental retardation" and the current preferred term, "learning disabilities" are diagnosed as performing below a certain threshold on one or more standardized tests. These tests have usually been extensively normed with hundreds of participants at various stages in the human lifespan.

Evaluating the cognitive abilities of non-humans is much more difficult. Is the participating animal dumb, or just shy when it comes to human contact? So talking about learning disabilities with non-humans is a bit more tricky. There certainly is plenty of evidence that non-humans can have a wide range of cognitive abilities as well as neurological disorders. In wild populations however, the life expectancy of individuals with significant neurological disorders is likely to be low.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2006

(My Boxer barks at napkins, leaves, and any other detritus in the yard. I think it's more of a poor vision problem. He's just not a very smart dog.)
posted by cass at 9:17 AM on January 24, 2006

In a world full of variation where it is hard to even define where one species stops and another starts, mental retardation is quite subjective and difficult to spot. I guess there could be insanely "smart" animals and likewise, those that are a "little slow" or "retarded," however this is putting a good deal of human spin on the issue of natural selection and simply survival behavior.

Two things. 1) First off, I'd imagine the first and most easily to be seen manifestation of mental retardation would be death by a predator. 2) I cannot quote my source at this time, but I've heard numerous examples of animal parents killing their newborns if "they don't seem right." Behavior and communication are two common ways animals identify kin, if a baby kitten isn't making the right noises or is acting funny, the mamma cat might think it's something other than its kitten and eat it.
posted by pwb503 at 10:30 AM on January 24, 2006

I had a puppy that would not housetrain. I thought it was me, until I got another puppy and housetrained him in a day. I think the first dog was retarded.
posted by clh at 10:31 AM on January 24, 2006

I think it would be hard to determine exactly what constitutes mental retardation in animals because it's (MR) really a purely human construct. defining mental retardation in someone would include demonstration of impaired learning, diminished vocabulary etc. which would be difficult to prove in an non-human animal model. also, as KirkJobSluder has pointed out, it is not a term that is in common use anymore (except by the black eyed peas).

there is a book by Dr Temple Grandin that is well worth a read called Animals in Translation. Grandin has autism and argues that her autism gives her insight into how other species see the world. she states a few things, but for me the most important point was that autistic humans and non-human animals see the world visually rather than linguistically. it's also a good insight into animal behavior, if that's your thing.

btw, i'm not saying that people with autism have mental retardation, just that the book shows the subtle (and clearly, not so subtle) differences in the way humans and non-human minds work in their perception of the world.
posted by tnai at 10:40 AM on January 24, 2006

Is it bad that I think this thread is absolutely hilarious? Retarded animals are adorable.
posted by borkingchikapa at 11:39 AM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

My brother had a cat (very sweet) that clearly wasn't very smart. Among other things, it liked to sit on the edge of the bathtub, between the shower curtain and the shower liner, in pitch blackness, for hours on end. I guess the lack of mental stimulation was comforting.

It also ran into walls because it could never remember that trying to change directions in mid-dash on a wooden floor wasn't really possible.
posted by WestCoaster at 11:48 AM on January 24, 2006

I also suspect that, at least in the case of domestic animals, what we interpret as intelligence might actually be stupidity--when it comes to survival, that is.

Exhibit A: I'm disassembling a compressed wood bookcase that has gone the way of all, er, compressed wood bookcases. A power screwdiver (BZZZ!) and a hammer (BANG!) are involved.

Disraeli, cat #1: Well, this looks interesting. I think I'll watch from this nice hall, which is thirteen feet away and opens onto three convenient rooms if I need to make an escape.

Victoria, cat #2: I must help! Let me just sit on the bookcase...oooh, those loose screws look fun...I wonder what she's doing with that stick with the silver thing on the end?

Vicki has a surprising attention span, and takes great interest in all human activities...but I suspect that in the wild, she'd be dead fairly soon.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:18 PM on January 24, 2006

We have a cat that was suffering from flea anemia just after its (slightly feral) birth - totally covered in fleas, lost so much blood that the vet said it didn't get enough O2 to the brain and probably would die. 9 years old now, relatively healthy, but walks into walls, stares and nothing for hours, inappropriate sounds (hisses sometimes at his food, attacks his water dish, will sometimes groom inanimate objects).
posted by luriete at 1:19 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think my puppy could be diagnosed with "Gender Identity Disorder", but I'm not sure why.

Well dogs surely don't have gender, so they couldn't have gender identity disorder. But I'm still curious, what symptoms does your dog display?
posted by duck at 2:42 PM on January 24, 2006

We once knew a cat that had had its head squarely stepped on when it was a kitten. Lots of vets did lots of extremely careful work on it . . . to put its eyes back in its skull.

Happy ending: My aunt adopted it, and looked after it for the rest of its very stupid life. Unfortunately she named it Popeye.

My point is, are you interested only in genetic retardation (e.g., Trisomy-21), or are you interested in how animals live with brain damage caused by trauma?
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:23 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oi. We has a hampster that was incestually born (dad and daughter), named Dave ("Dave's not here!").
Dave loved running in his hampster wheel. He loved it so much, he didn't eat or drink. Because of this, Dave died.

What happens to them in the wild? They die.
posted by klangklangston at 4:58 PM on January 24, 2006

I've always wondered if cats and dogs who play with their own tail are merely amusing themselves by choice or if they really are temporarily confused and intrigued by the mystery of a tail.

Since animals exhibit a wide range of physical abilities, it seems logical that mental abilities also vary. I think my cat is moderately intelligent; however, she is very clutsy. She seems to have poor judgement on needed jump umph and she does not have a high level of gracefulness for balance. But of course, my son and I love her.
posted by chase at 3:25 AM on January 25, 2006

« Older Black pit of despair   |   How can I wrap gifts in a Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.