"Richard Cory" syndrome in animals?
May 4, 2006 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Humans sometimes feel depressed or anxious with no apparent environmental cause. Does this happen in animals? Or do humans possibly have brains that are too evolved/sophisticated for our own good, in a way?

You might call it the "Richard Cory" syndrome--having everything (or at least having a reasonably okay life), yet being unhappy or anxious to an unhealthy extent. Humans are capable of feeling alone in the middle of a crowd, doubting whether other people's care and concern is genuine, feeling anxious when we know rationally that there's no clear danger, etc.

I know that animals experience some version of anxiety or depression due to circumstances or environmental factors--being abandoned, being in pain, having been abused, etc., but is there any evidence of animals feeling depressed or anxious with no obvious external cause? Or is that unique to us, a side effect of having brains capable of such sophisticated thought? (My logic here is that perhaps having such sophisticated brains allows or leads us to overthink things.)

I'm interested in research but also anecdotes--have you had a dog or cat that seems depressed or anxious despite having had a good, fairly stress-free life since birth?
posted by needs more cowbell to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've seen my cat sigh before, apparently for no reason.
posted by interrobang at 11:38 AM on May 4, 2006

When cats sigh, interrobang, they're only lamenting the stupidity of the two-legged imbeciles around them.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:40 AM on May 4, 2006

interrobang, I'm talking about clearer things--I've seen dogs who shake constantly when they're away from their owners, for instance. To me, that's a pretty clear sign of anxiety, and that's the sort of thing I'm looking for.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:43 AM on May 4, 2006

Dogs definitely get separation anxiety. I'm taking a veterinary medicine class right now - turns out vets use the same drugs for depression and anxiety (SSRIs and benzodiazepines) that are used in humans.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:01 PM on May 4, 2006

But cowbell, your example is an external cause - separation from the owner. You're asking basically if there is any depression or anxiety with no environmental trigger.
posted by spicynuts at 12:01 PM on May 4, 2006

I have seen both dogs and cats show obvious signs of emotional distress when they (and their kin) were not in danger...when they were picking up on the emotions of the humans they had a close connection to.

It may happen at other times...but this is when I've seen it happening. In fact, it probably does happen at other times, but it's more likely to be noticed by the humans when they're feeling the same thing that the animals are feeling.
posted by bingo at 12:02 PM on May 4, 2006

I gave that as an example of an animal behavior that seems to be a clear manifestation of anxiety (as opposed to a cat sighing--to me that doesn't seem like a clear sign of anxiety/depression); I'm looking for that sort of behavior without an apparent external cause.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:06 PM on May 4, 2006

I have a cat that's an asshole. He's crabby ALL the time, eventhough there is no reason for him to be. Our pets are completely pampered, but for some reason, this jerk is never happy. He never sits still, whines constantly, complains about everything & only wants to be pet on his terms. Of couse, some may think i'm describing every cat out there - but trust me, this one's truly a piece of work.
posted by Alpenglow at 12:08 PM on May 4, 2006

I have a dog that I believe has Asperger's/Autism. She doesn't like being hugged or held. Her brother, from the same litter, wants to be held like a baby as much as possible. But the girl? She pushes and struggles to get away every time you try to hold her close and give her affection. This extends to, if she's sleeping, and you lovingly pet her, she gets up, annoyed, and moves away. I mean, it's not depression, but it seems like it's a biological sort of thing, inherent in her. There's no external event or reason that would have made her so adamantly opposed to being cuddled.
posted by joaniemcchicken at 12:28 PM on May 4, 2006

But how does that make her autistic or, uh, aspergic? I'm genuinely curious. I've got a cat who behaves like that to me, but he adores my wife.
posted by boo_radley at 12:31 PM on May 4, 2006

I would like to see an article or something about canine autism.
My german shepherd mutt seems.....well he doesn't like to look you in the face. And he gets really weird about stuff... I don't know. It is hard to describe.
It could also be his lack of socialization as a puppy.
So if anyone knows an article out there or has a certified autistic /asperger dog
posted by TheLibrarian at 12:45 PM on May 4, 2006

I can't find a reference to it online now, but I saw a television program that featured a dog with obsessive-compulsive behavior. Whenever his owner took him to her house in the country, he would jump in the swimming pool and swim obsessively, for hours on end, just doing nervous laps around the pool all day long. It was obvious that he was not having fun; he was whimpering the whole time and clearly very anxious. It seemed directly analogous to compulsive behavior in humans, and a vet had diagnosed it as such. They had tried one med (an SSRI, if I remember correctly), and it helped a bit, but the dog still spent a lot of time swimming...
posted by mr_roboto at 12:55 PM on May 4, 2006

Boo Radley, I just assigned that diagnosis to her. She is a lively, love of a dog, but stiffens the minute you go to hold her, and pushes hard against you to get away. I believe that's what autistic babies do, so I've just decided she must have some form of it. She will never lay in your lap. She will lay beside you. She will allow you to lift her up and down from things (she's small) but the minute you stop lifting and start cuddling, she gets pretty agitated and stiffens to push away. She'll do active play things, but the minute you are overcome with love for her and want to hug and kiss her, she wants nothing to do with it. She's also much more restless than her brother. She moves around constantly when she's sleeping. And I mean she's sleeping and she gets up and is extremely annoyed, then she goes to some other spot. Sometimes, and I realize this sounds crazy, but it seems as if, after each time you've "crossed her boundaries" she actually glares at you, as if to say, "You know I don't like being touched! We were having fun, why did you have to ruin it?"
Of course, that could just be me projecting onto her.
posted by joaniemcchicken at 12:58 PM on May 4, 2006

Um, I think it's very clear from the post that the poster understands that animals can feel anxiety and depression. I'm sure everyone can give an example of their dog or cat or macaw that displayed separation anxiety or sadness or something because an owner or playmate died or left the house or something. What she's wondering is if they get it without those external factors, the way humans do.

For example, a human can live a comparetively OK life but still have a depressive or anxiety disorder.

(Though I think you go down a dangerous road when you assume there are no external factors leading to those disorders--it can invite a discussion from how one defines a "happy childhood" and "normal life" to the effects of a materialistic society on one's ability to be happy and whatnot).

Personally, I'm going to guess you won't find animals with depressive disorders that don't have a clear tie to environmental causes. I'm guessing their heirarchy of needs (incidentally mentioned in this thread) doesn't go past level 3. Higher-level animals can certainly develop self-awareness, but probably not to the point where they need Esteem and Self-Actualization.

I think for most people it's the lack of fulfillment of levels 4 and 5 that lead to anxiety and depression where there should theoretically be none. Having food and a house and people who love you does not mean you'll find internal fulfillment, even though you might feel you should.
posted by schroedinger at 1:06 PM on May 4, 2006

Er, the heirarchy of needs being Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs.
posted by schroedinger at 1:06 PM on May 4, 2006

Very interesting -- and serious -- article in the NYT about why some people "bounce back" much better from terrble experiences.

The relevance is that it may be genetic, and they tested this by what can only be described as deliberately giving monkeys an unhappy childhood.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:49 PM on May 4, 2006

I wonder if dogs that are part of the herding group are more prone to separation anxiety than others? I have a five year-old purebred Old English Sheepdog, and he becomes extremely frantic (i.e. high-pitched whimpering, pacing around in a circle) whenever we put him in the car and drive down the hill from our house. He literally does not want to leave his home, ever. And whenever one of us goes out, he stands motionless at the front door, breathing extremely hard, and again, does the high-pitched whimpering thing.
posted by invisible ink at 2:08 PM on May 4, 2006

Schroedinger, you're right. He wants to know if FOR NO REASON, dogs get depressed. I think they don't. You have to have a bigger more complex brain to actually create your own unhappiness. You have to be able to ask "Why?" "Why do some dogs die and others don't?" I can't imagine an animal ever asks that question. or: "Why didn't I get that meat scrap instead of Princess? Why don't people like me?" Part of being able to be lonely or have longing or be depressed, is being able to have a long term memory. You need it to add up all the bad things that have happened to you, or in the world. Most animals don't have that ability.
posted by joaniemcchicken at 3:10 PM on May 4, 2006

Okay, after rereading the original post I see now that mine doesn't really apply. Ignore & move on;-)
posted by invisible ink at 3:17 PM on May 4, 2006

joaniemcchicken --

I have a dog like that too. The dog is a great great dog but submissive. He gets uncomfortable when you go up to it and kinda looks away uncomfortably, etc...

I think with a submissive dog you are kinda messing with it if you go to it for attention. doesn't make sense in it's world. And cuddling often doesnt make sense to a dog.

I can't help it tho- I still like to go give him a kiss from time to time...
posted by beccaj at 6:10 PM on May 4, 2006

OK, missed the bit about no apparent environmental cause. Sorry.

Are there really humans who suffer from depression / anxiety with no apparent cause though? Speaking as a depressed person who hangs out with depressed people, it seems to me that I can usually identify a dozen reasons why someone is depressed/anxious. Often it just comes down to childhood stuff - we have long and subtle memories, so we can hang onto all sorts of dysfunction long after the trauma has passed, even into the period where our lives seem ok. It seems the same thing applies to animals. Eg, adopting an adult dog that's been abused is a pain, I've heard - they aren't socialized well, get too worked up, etc.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:58 PM on May 4, 2006

Animals most definitely get obsessive-compulsive disorders, which are unrelated to any clearly identifiable environmental cause. A common one in dogs is "fly snapping", because the dog snaps at invisible flies for hours on end and seems unable to stop, or obsessing over sunlight reflecting through windows and such, chronic tail chasing is also found in dogs and cats (some, especially cats, will chase their tails and self-injure to very serious degrees, sometimes they will damage their tails so badly the tail needs to be amputated). Many animals also have psychological issues relating to perceived threats where none exist.
posted by biscotti at 7:09 PM on May 4, 2006

Humans sometimes feel depressed or anxious with no apparent environmental cause.

You might call it the "Richard Cory" syndrome--having everything (or at least having a reasonably okay life), yet being unhappy or anxious

Are you aware of the contradiction you're creating here? We didn't evolve to have a plentiful, "reasonably okay" life; we, like Nature, are red in tooth and claw. Our lives were supposed to be nasty, brutish and short, and we are specialized to thrive in that situation.

In fact, some say that we're wired to rape and kill everything in sight. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a product of a civilized time, but we apply it to ourselves - at best, uncivilized beasts.

I am going fishing tomorrow; I am going to use my cunning to seek out and capture the thrashing rockfish that litter the ocean floor, and then I am going to kill those fish, slice them up, batter them, and eat them with great relish. And it's going to feel good, because all those needs that I brought with me as baggage from the Upper Paleolithic are thwarted on a daily basis.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:49 PM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I am not very good at linking (haven't figured that out yet), but I am going to give you a topic or name of article that you can at least find the abstracts for in pubmed.

There is evidence in animals (mice) that you can raise them in the same environment (lab cage) and just change a gene which then disrupts a particular receptor. The same receptor has been suggested to play a role in human anxiety and depression. Anyway, by changing this gene in the mice, you can create a line of very anxious mice. Again, the environment was not changed, just the DNA.

A neat article about this that you can check out if you want is "Serotonin 1A receptor acts during development to establish normal anxiety like behavior in the adult" If you can get one of the articles, you can find more references.
posted by Wolfster at 9:21 PM on May 4, 2006

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