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Ask an Expert - All about pets emotional states and mood states with Dr. Robert Falconer-Taylor

Ask an Expert - All about pets emotional states and mood states with Dr. Robert Falconer-Taylor

Ask an Expert is a way for you to reach out to professionals. Our expert – Dr. Falconer-Taylor, as a companion animal veterinary behaviorist, has been helping pets with behavior problems for over 20 years. Here are some questions and answers:


After a long period of time working from a home office (due to covid), I go back into the office and I observe my dog is suffering a lot. How can I help him/ how can I reduce his separation anxiety?

Wow – this is a difficult question because, for negative emotional states like separation anxiety, PREPARATION BEFORE THE EVENT is everything. The reason for this is that negative emotional states like fear and loneliness are processed in the more primitive parts of the brain that are responsible for basic survival. When this happens, the dog becomes less dependant on the more cognitive thinking parts of the brain. The result of this shift in emotional processing is that trying to teach or reassure the dog to be calm and relaxed when alone at home for a while simply doesn’t work. However, there are other things you can do to help. First, I would encourage you to ask a friend or neighbor to visit your dog 2 or 3 times a day for 10 or 15 minutes, or perhaps employ a dog walker. Setting up a new daily routine for your dog while you are working can make a huge difference to his emotional state and he can then start to learn that it’s OK when you are not there. Other things to consider, there are a number of safe, natural remedies available for dogs. For example, the amino acid tryptophan is very much involved with positive emotional states, this is why it is used in a number of ‘calming’ supplements for dogs. Another novel and interesting source of tryptophan is the gut microbiome, where many ‘beneficial’ bacteria secrete this neurotransmitter as part of their normal metabolism. This, along with their direct connection to the emotional systems of the brain via the gut-brain axis, can help anxious dogs cope better. Another thing to remember is that stress increases the production and release of damaging free radicals in the cells, and antioxidant supplements can help here. Another thing to consider is any ongoing medical condition such as arthritis that might be causing your dog ongoing pain. This is because the feelings of grief are strongly linked to feeling pain, so ongoing pain will make loneliness feel worse for your dog. This is a discussion you should have with your veterinarian. Finally, separation anxiety is a serious behavioral condition and I highly recommend that you seek advice from a qualified behaviorist, who will help you put an effective plan in place for both you and your dog.


How can I differentiate between a behavioral problem and an emotional problem?

This is a great question and a very common one. In psychology, behavior is most often considered as detached and separate from emotional states such as happiness, joy, fear, and sadness. The reasons for this are historic and go back to 1912 when behaviorist John Watson encouraged psychologists to abandon trying to get to grips with feelings and emotions because they were too vague and could not be precisely measured, and therefore they were unscientific. He instead encouraged psychologists to use behavior as the only reliable indicator of psychological change, because behaviors can be observed, measured, and quantified. Famous psychologists that followed Watson’s behaviorist doctrine include Pavlov and Skinner. Everyone knows about Pavlov and his dogs that salivated to the sound of a ringing bell. Skinner gave the principles of instrumental, or operant learning. Together, these psychologists laid down the principles of what we call ‘Learning Theory’ today. However, learning theory is deeply flawed, and in the last decade or so it has been going through a radical revision. In short, humans and animals have been given back their emotional lives as an important part of their identity and behavior. What this means to me is that behavior and emotions are one and the same thing. Let me explain. It is now well recognized that all mammals, which includes both humans and dogs, are conscious and live rich emotional lives. The evidence for this was described in exquisite detail by the late Jaak Panksepp in the 1998 seminal book ‘Affective Neuroscience’. From this, the idea that how we behave is somehow detached from how we feel just does not make sense anymore. It is in fact the other way around – how we feel is intimately connected to and is the driver of how we behave. Excitement and pleasure compel us to seek out and consume the things in life that we like. And conversely, fear and displeasure urge us to avoid the things in life we don’t like. So, to answer your question, it’s the same for dogs. A behavior problem IS an emotional problem. How the dog feels drives the behavior, and therefore behavior is inseparable from the emotional state that preceded it.


If my dog already has probiotics and/or prebiotics in their diet, could changing to a different source of probiotics/ prebiotics have a better effect on their mood? 

Yes definitely, and for the same reasons that humans taking prescription pharmaceuticals for depression and anxiety respond very differently to different formulations of the drug that are all supposed to work in the same way. Here’s why. As a veterinarian, I was trained to treat a wide spectrum of diseases in animals ranging from Addison’s disease to zygomycosis. What all these very different diseases have in common is that I could identify them with confidence by simply following a reliable set of diagnostic steps. These steps would typically include examining the animal, imaging such as X-Rays, taking tissue samples, blood tests and so on. Then, once a diagnosis has been made, I could start treating the animal with appropriate drugs that I was confident would target the diseased tissue with a reasonably high degree of specificity. Job done. The reason why diagnosing and treating physical disease is quite straightforward is because all the organs of the body (liver, kidney, heart, skin etc.) work pretty much independently of each other, and when they go wrong they tend to produce signs of disease that are pretty specific to that organ. However this is not the case when it comes to the brain and treating behaviour problems in pets. This is because, while the brain is divided into distinct parts functionally, all the parts are highly connected together. This organisation is called the connectome, and it includes all the parts of the brain that are responsible for your dog’s emotional states. Now, as a veterinary behaviourist, what I do is help dogs like yours to manage their emotional states better. Better emotional states mean better behaviour. One of the tools I use are pre- and probiotics because I want to take advantage of the intimate relationship between the gut and the brain – the so-called gut-brain axis. Like the brain’s connectome, the gut microbiome is highly inter-connected. This is the reason why we cannot predict what the best medicine might be for an emotional disorder. This complex inter-connectedness of both the brain and the gut microbiome is also the reason why changing your dog’s probiotic/prebiotic could have a better effect on her mood state. 

Published Nov 27, 2023 | Updated Feb 20, 2024


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