Anyone who owns a pet understands the strong connection that can develop between people and animals. But that deep bond doesn’t let us see behind strange or compulsive behavior of our beloved dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and other animals. Nicholas Dodman, a renowned Tufts University veterinarian and researcher, has spent decades studying pets in order to demystify and treat their behavior disorders. He explores the topic in his latest book, Pets on the Couch, which breaks down complex scientific research into a user-friendly guide to help owners get a handle on what’s going on with their pets. Dodman joined the Knowledge at Wharton show to talk about the book. The interview aired on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: It is important to understand our pets a little better. That’s what your book is about.
Nicholas Dodman: Yes, I think that’s true. Half of American homes have a dog, and more like two-thirds have a pet, so that would include cats, too. There’s 300 million of us and, who knows, 100 million homes, so there’s a huge number of people who own pets, interact with pets, and have close relationships — or not.
Knowledge at Wharton: You chronicle how a lot of our four-legged friends have some of the same medical issues that we deal with on a daily basis. That leads me back to something I saw on the notes from the publisher, which said that the book was inspiring, fascinating but also heartbreaking. The heartbreaking part obviously goes to some of these medical issues.
Dodman: There are some parts in there that would stir emotion. I talked to somebody the other day who said when she read about the situation that I rescued my dog Jasper from, she was just crying. It was a tragic situation, but the good news is that he’s landed on his feet in a home where he gets lots of walks, lots of freedom, and he is allowed on the couch. He can now bark when he wants to. You know, happy ending. But he was kept in a crate like 23 hours a day, wasn’t fed on a regular basis. When I acquired him, he weighed 45 pounds. He now weighs 85, which is his proper weight. He’s got a tucked abdomen and runs like the wind. But at 45 pounds, he was ravenous all the time, nearly took your fingers off when you offered him a treat just in case it disappeared. He’d snap like an alligator.
But I managed to acquire him from that situation because he was so hungry that when, on his rare trips out of his crate, he ate a bunch of tampons and threw up some. Three got stuck, and the vet charged up to $5,000 to do the surgery to remove these objects. His owner couldn’t afford it. She was going to put him down, and we heard about it through our daughter, who is now at the University of Pennsylvania medical school doing a residency. Our daughter said, “You’ve got to help this dog.” We ended up calling the girl and saying, “We’ll do the surgery for free as long as you promise you will let us find him a decent home.” She reluctantly agreed, we did the surgery and Jasper recovered. We were looking around for a home for him, but nothing was right. People were away at work, he was going to be left alone, and actually it turns out the best home for him was with us. So here he stays.
“There isn’t human medicine and veterinary medicine. The two of them are intimately linked together.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Unfortunately, that ends up being the story for thousands of animals in the United States and around the globe that need either to be rescued from a very bad situation or are out on their own, fending for themselves.
Dodman: That’s exactly right. It’s a tough life for some of them, and some of them are just misunderstood by their owners, so I hope the book helps to clear up for some people what their dog is doing, why it’s acting out and what they can do about it. The book is peppered with all kinds of stories. You could kind of read it and weep or read it in joy hearing the stories of the animals I’ve encountered over the last 35 years as a behaviorist.
There’s a theme that goes through the book, which is there is but one medicine. There isn’t human medicine and veterinary medicine. The two of them are intimately linked together. Things that happen to people can happen to pets, emotional issues that affect people can also affect pets, and even psychiatric issues that happen to people, happen to pets. Post-traumatic stress happens to people, happens to pets. Obsessive compulsive disorder, the same.
I’ve used almost as a bible … The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the psychiatrist’s guide to diagnosing human psychiatric issues. There are chapters about anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome. For every one that is in the human psychiatric manual, there is an equivalent in the animal world, with the possible exception of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Knowledge at Wharton: Depression is one that you go into as well, but that is not as surprising because perhaps depression is easier to see in pets than some of these other issues.
Dodman: Absolutely. There are two types of depression: one of them is called state depression, which animals certainly suffer from when they are bereaved of a beloved animal, friend or person that they are attached to.
Maybe the person moves away, they pass on, and they find themselves without that person, without that other dog friend or whatever. They can show all of the signs of state depression, which sometimes with a little help from their friends like me, we can bounce them out of that. We know things that can be done to help to shorten that period of grief, make them feel a bit happier and get them back on the road.
But the one that hasn’t really been identified yet, not saying it doesn’t exist, is trait depression. When you talk about a depressive personality, there are people who oscillate between feeling relatively normal and then, all of a sudden and sometimes for apparently no reason, they go into the depths of despair and depression, which eventually shifts and then they’re back to normal. They’re oscillating back and forth from normal, and that’s called monopolar depression. But it is a character trait. I’ve not actually seen trait depression in animals, only state depression.
Knowledge at Wharton: How important is it for pet owners to at least consider these things when they are thinking about adding a pet to their family?
Dodman: There are certainly a lot of considerations that you need to carefully chew over or think about before acquiring a pet, because a lot of people acquire a dog or cat for the wrong reason. Sometimes it’s the Christmas puppies that are given to people who really don’t have the time to care for it. It really is important to match a person with a pet. At the moment, it’s done by rule of thumb, finger to the wind.
“Things that happen to people can happen to pets, emotional issues that affect people can also affect pets.”
But I am working with an eminent researcher at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school, James Serpell. He and I have both done studies looking at the interaction of people and pets, the influence an owner can have on a pet and the compatibility or lack thereof. We have an ongoing study, which people can look at on drdodman.org., that’s all about dogs, and they can decide if they want to participate.
From the results of the study, if people go to a shelter to adopt a dog, they can fill in 20 questions about themselves that we think will be able to predict the kind of dog that would best suit their needs. You could evaluate the dog behavior by a questionnaire that Serpell came up with himself called Canine Behavior and Research Questionnaire, or CBARQ. That’s been validated as a good measure of canine personality behavior. We think we can come up with a simple app that will help people adopt a dog. It’s almost like a Match.com for adopting a dog so you put the right personalities together.
People sometimes adopt a dog for the wrong reason, or they don’t understand the consequences. There’s always the right person for every dog; it doesn’t mean you don’t adopt a dog. If you spend long hours away from home, for example, and you go to a shelter and feel sorry for a dog who is cowering in the corner: sympathy — good stuff. But in that sense, that dog is going to be very needy, and you’re not at home a lot, so you might end up on the receiving end of a condition known as separation anxiety.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’ve had a golden retriever in the past and now a chocolate lab. Both are so energetic and exciting that if you’re somebody who is not as mobile or you don’t exercise, that could be a big problem for the dog.
Dodman: That’s right. I wrote another book a few years back called The Well-Adjusted Dog, and I discussed the energy requirements of dogs. I classed them into the runners, dogs like German short-haired pointers and a number of the very athletic hound dogs, or dogs in sporting breeds who really need a lot of exercise. You can’t adopt a dog like that and then live in an apartment and go on a half-mile walk on leash every day and still expect the dog to be in tiptop mental form.
On the other hand, there are average exercise requirement dogs. Then I describe the couch potatoes, the dogs who really don’t need a lot of exercise. If you are immobile or living in a pretty confined place or a big city, get one of these low-energy dogs.
Curiously, a lot of people get it completely wrong. If you get a Newfoundland, they can be very friendly. But their exercise requirements — they’re more like a throw rug, you know? You just have it in your living room and enjoy the company, but it doesn’t really need a lot of exercise. But people go the other way. They say, “I’ve got a little apartment, so I’m going to get a little dog, I’ll get a Jack Russell.” Well, that dog is a very high-energy dog. They really need a lot of outputs and outlets, otherwise they just drive you crazy in a small apartment because they’re not getting the exercise they need.
“I hope the book helps to clear up for some people what their dog is doing, why it’s acting out and what they can do about it.”
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the interesting, maybe even scary topics that you bring up is the fact that animals get Alzheimer’s.
Dodman: Yes, that’s pretty well-established now. I remember I was in on the very early stages of that, and there was a company that was developing the first Alzheimer’s drug for dogs. People say, “Oh well, it’s just them getting old.” Well, it’s not. If people can age successfully, dogs can do the same. But Alzheimer’s is a disease which is characterized by certain changes in the brain. Amyloid protein, plaques and neurofibrillary tangles of a protein called tau, which seem to gum up the works. Exactly the same brain changes occur in dogs and cats and other species when they develop Alzheimer’s. Like in people, the diagnosis is really one of ruling out, and the definitive diagnosis is made post-mortem.
Knowledge at Wharton: In dealing with medical issues in people, we often talk about genetics. Is there a hereditary element in some of these issues with our pets as well?
Dodman: Absolutely. We know that there are obsessive compulsive disorders like, for example, a dog who licks his leg to the point of causing sores and ulcers, and does it in anxious situations. Doberman pinchers will nurse on their flanks and sometimes cause a lesion there, and it’s kind of bizarre and out of place. We know that it travels in family lines, and you can plot out a genealogy and see this condition tracking. We wanted to look at it and find the genes that caused it. We found the first gene is something called neural cadherin, and it expresses itself in the brain and areas that are relevant. We published that in Molecular Psychiatry a few years back.
The first gene to at least set the animal up for expressing compulsive disorder, that gene is subsequently confirmed in a different breed, the Belgian Malinois, with a different compulsive behavior, this case running in circles. Finally, it was confirmed also in people with OCD that this gene is affected, and it was sort of partially shown by a study that we were involved in with The National Institutes of Health and by a group from South Africa who said yes, the neural cadherin gene is involved in generating or setting a human being up for it. We then discovered other genes, serotonin genes, that seem to affect the severity. So, if you’ve got the two genes — one is for susceptibility and the other is severity — they work in concert, if they are awry, to produce very severe forms of the condition.
We’ve also been looking at the dog autism model. We’ve studied the bull terrier and found glitches that seem to be traveling on the X chromosome, so we may actually be looking at a type of fragile X syndrome. There’s also a suspicion of something awry on canine chromosome four.
“Exactly the same brain changes occur in dogs and cats and other species when they develop Alzheimer’s.”
People are beginning to look all over now with these genome-wide association studies, which is not a bad first step. But you need to get more detailed after that. Lots of things set an animal up. Couple that with an impaired environment, and out pops the genie from the Pandora’s Box kind of thing, to mix my metaphors.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also take time in the book to discuss the bad dreams that pets have and how much of a concern that should be for pet owners.
Dodman: In the REM stage of sleep, the dreaming phase of sleep, dogs will be able to activate the muscles under very fine motor control. Eyes can flicker, eyeballs are twitching backwards and forwards, paws can twitch backwards and forwards, and there can even be vocalizations and muscle movements. It’s kind of normal, and you just know the dog is dreaming. If you do an EEG at that time, you will see a brain wave pattern that is pretty much the same as what would happen in a human who was dreaming. So yeah, they dream, that’s normal.
But sometimes this process goes awry. Either due to a partial seizure or what’s called REM behavior disorder, you can have an animal who does that in a very extreme form. Their movement is really exaggerated. It’s practically writhing. Some will actually jump up in what appears to be a blind fury of really not quite conscious, almost like night terrors in a child, run around and perhaps attack a blanket or another dog or some such. I tell a few stories about these dogs and how we deal with them and how we try to decide, which is not always easy, whether to treat with an anti-convulsant. In other words, if it’s a sort of seizure-type disorder. Or whether to treat with a Valium type drug, which is pretty standard treatment for REM behavior disorder, which of course occurs in people as well.
Knowledge at Wharton: There are certain things that do have to be treated with medicine, but how much of the relationship between the pet owner and the pet can alleviate some of these problems?
Dodman: Well, that’s a good point and it’s true. Take our old friend, separation anxiety, which affects quite a few dogs who have been through the school of hard knocks — they’ve been bounced around from home to home or through a shelter, and they’ve lost self-confidence, they’re sort of not very independent. If they go into a home with a person who is more positive and confident, they end up feeling they can rely on them.
They can actually get better over time, which happened with my other dog, Rusty. He had separation anxiety when I got him. I didn’t even enact one of my programs. My wife and I are fairly straightforward people, and he just got to understand that this happens and now we can leave him. We try not to because we don’t like to upset him, but we can go away for a few hours at a time, even go down and see a Red Sox game, and he’s OK. I don’t like to leave him for five or six hours, and he rarely gets left for that long, but certainly we have a life to lead. My wife has a horse at a barn, and she has to go out there and look after the horse. And when I was full-time working, I would have to be at work. So, they had to get used to being left for three or four hours.
But the other side of that penny is that you can adopt a dog with a tendency for or existing separation anxiety, and if you are overly empathetic, too caring, too much of a good thing, sometimes you can feed into that problem and make them even more nervous by your own anxiety. These are things we hope to establish in the study that I’m doing with Dr. Serpell. We hope to straighten this out and make it not just a surmise, not just an experience that we report and see frequently, but actually scientific fact.