Maria D. Volkova


The article investigates ethological and psychiatric narratives around animal depression, current veterinarian practices of prescribing antidepressants to pets, and the history of the animal model of depression. The conceptualization of depression—as it was set up in the 1980s—placed emphasis on subjective criteria such as “feelings of sadness”. A biological approach to depression, developed in parallel, included the assumption that this disfunction is of a physiological nature. This assumption meant that the processes which cause or accompany depression disorders in human beings can be detected in animals and can therefore be recreated in a laboratory experiment. But the validity of experiments that recreated the animal model of depression has increasingly been questioned. The “animal-human-animal” translation turned out to be problematic: there was not enough evidence to draw an analogy between an animal in an experiment and a depressed human. External symptoms observed did not relate well to the criteria of the disorder, the latter of which were linked to subjective experience. An opposite development could be observed in the veterinary sciences. Starting from the 1970s, the diagnosis and treatment of pet depression in the USA gained widespread appeal. Veterinarians and pet owners demonstrated that they could diagnose an animal with a depressive disorder based exclusively on external symptoms and a characterization of the owner-pet relationship. A certain means of recognizing “a case of animal depression” was established, despite the fact that depression criteria were not directly applicable. This tendency to recognize human traits in an animal is widespread. The author suggests that this "recognition" is of a social nature: depression is attributed to the animal when the interaction between human and animal breaks down. Interactionist and ethnomethodological approaches to the analysis of interaction are invoked to clarify this thesis.


Keywords: animal studies, sociology of psychiatry, animal model of depression