Mental illness or behavior problem?

Is your dog acting differently? It may be a behavioral issue caused by a mental illness. Take a look at two conditions that can cause him to become fearful, aggressive or destructive.

“After my husband died, our dog started acting strangely,” says Bernice. “She became scared and snappy and began having accidents in the house. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong with her. We knew Maja was grieving for my husband, as we all were, but nothing we did seemed to help her.”

Maja was most likely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, a form of mental illness that can affect animals as well as people. Mental illness in dogs can arise as an extension of physical illness (a progression of disease from the physical to the psyche), or it can actually arise in the psyche in response to external factors such as persistent grief, anger, humiliation or fright. We also need to take into account animals who have sustained a traumatic brain injury in the past. The problem with diagnosing mental illness in companion animals is that the symptoms are so varied that it makes categorizing them difficult. To complicate matters, there are no good, readily available tests for mental illness in animals.

In my practice, two of the most common forms of mental illness – and by mental illness, I mean cases where the primary symptoms are mental/emotional and expressed as changes in behavior – are rabiesmiasm and post traumatic stress disorder.

1. Rabiesmiasm

Rabiesmiasm is a syndrome recognized by veterinary homeopaths. It is believed that by repeatedly vaccinating animals against rabies, we are creating a form of chronic disease characterized by a wide range of symptoms common to animals infected with the rabies virus. Clinically we see a change in behavior within months of receiving a rabies vaccine. Animals can be affected to different degrees. In mild cases, symptoms can be restlessness, a desire to be alone, trouble swallowing, and a change in the character of the voice. Severely affected animals can become prone to sudden, violent rages and acts of self mutilation such as chewing the tail.

These animals are often euthanized because they pose a very real threat to themselves and everyone around them. Behavior modification fails in these animals because they are suffering from a disease that needs to be treated medically. In human terms, they lack empathy and impulse control. They are the sociopaths of the animal kingdom. Treatment with homeopathy to remove the “vaccine taint” can be successful in many cases but should be undertaken with caution as these animals remain dangerous while undergoing therapy.

I treated just such a case several years ago. She came to me after having been unsuccessfully treated by the local veterinary behaviorist. This particular dog’s history included skin eruptions and hives, immediately following rabies vaccination. The veterinarian administered a steroid and antihistamine to suppress the eruptions. The eruptions were a sign the body was attempting to rid itself of the vaccine energy but the medication prevented it from doing so – it actually pushed the disease from the skin deep into the nervous system. Shortly thereafter, this once sweet dog killed another household animal. She could no longer be trusted with the three other household dogs. Her person described her as unpredictable and said she would attack without warning or provocation.

She was doing very well on a homeopathic remedy until she was unfortunately once again given a steroid shot by another veterinarian to treat the return of her skin eruptions. The very next day, she viciously attacked one of the other dogs.

This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates how difficult this disease can be to treat. Rabies vaccines are currently required by law in most regions, but the Rabies Challenge Fund study is working to prove an extended duration of immunity for rabies vaccinations, which means the law will hopefully change in years to come.


What happens when an organism is faced with a situation which he is incapable of handling emotionally? It is stored as energy within the nervous system. Left unresolved, the brain and body store the energy in the neural networks where it is constantly re-experienced. This is the basis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Animals who have experienced extreme trauma such as a motor vehicle accident, the death of a loved one, the loss of home and family, etc. are often seen to have “behavioral disorders”. Extreme fear, fear-based aggression, destructive behavior and house soiling are common among this group of animals. Behavioral modification can be very rewarding in these dogs, but sometimes a more holistic approach is needed. I was called out to treat a dog who had been labeled savage due to his unpredictable behavior. During the examination process, I learned that his person purchased him from his previous family when he saw the dog being mistreated.

As I worked on this poor dog, I noticed that even though he had a history of explosive behavior, I couldn’t get him to respond to anything I was doing. He just ignored me. He had withdrawn from the world, only emerging when his previous trauma was released from his nervous system, sending him into panic. Craniosacral therapy allowed him to reintegrate and release the negative and fearful prior experiences from his nervous system, and natural training helped him rebuild his relationship with his person.

Not all behavior problems indicate a deeper underlying problem. Sometimes a banana is just a banana. But if you have a dog who undergoes a sudden change in temperament, or you work with abused animals, consider looking beyond a behavioral diagnosis, especially if the animal is not responding to the appropriate behavioral modification and properly prescribed treatments. A well trained holistic veterinarian can help determine if a different course of action may be needed to return your dog to health.

Bernice took Maja to an integrative vet who confirmed that the dog indeed had PTSD brought on by the loss of her “dad”. It took time and patience, but a combination of behavior modification, homeopathic remedies and other therapies gradually helped Maja overcome the disorder and regain her sweet, laid-back personality. “She’s her old self again,” Bernice says gratefully.