Animal Models of Human Psychiatric Disorders

For twenty years I have realized that the behavior problems I see in pet animals, especially dogs, are for the most part facsimiles of conditions psychologists and psychiatrists see in people. Human psychiatric conditions are diagnosed with reference to a manual known as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).


Many of the conditions referred to in there are also seen in a veterinary behaviorist’s caseload. Dogs are presented with mood disorders, anxiety-related conditions, phobias, sleep disorders, impulse control disorders and compulsive disorders. There are some differences, of course. Dogs don’t get substance- related disorders and, as far as we know, do not get bulimia, body dysmorphic disorder, schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome or depression. That said, similarities abound and some remind us of our human foibles.


The belief that study of (non-human) animals may teach us something about ourselves is called the animal models concept. My interest in compulsive disorders and belief in them as “animal models” of human OCD attracted the attention of the magazine SCIENCE. Last Friday a reporter from this prestigious magazine attended cases with me and grilled me for the entire day about my biological approach to understanding behavior problems in both animals and people.


Some psychiatrists, I told the reporter, seem to have an anthropocentric view of the world, apparently looking down at the rest of the animal kingdom from an evolutionary mountaintop. Veterinarians, like myself, however, are quite used to extrapolating from species to species. I belive this extrapolation is quite valid because we share a lot of the same DNA with animals (95% in the case of dogs) and have many genes in common (around 50%). Our brains are structured similarly and have the same centers and neurotransmitters. The difference is only a matter of proportions.


I’m not sure how the article in SCIENCE will turn out but it will no doubt be point- counterpoint presentation. I hope the reporter pay due homage to the remarkable similarities that exist across the species and will see the bottle as half-full rather than half-empty. The similarities, to my mind, outweigh the differences. After all, we’re all mammals in this life together.


Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman


Dr. Dodman will be presenting a two-day seminar at Narnia Pet Behavior & Training in Plainfield, Illinois on Saturday, the 24th and 25th of April, 2010. For anyone interested, please check out “Events” on his website,