Our pets’ inability to communicate through words gives us the upper hand in the relationship. This includes assuming a caretaker position where we’re responsible for everything from food, water, and shelter to caring for them when sick.
While our pets deserve the best care, it can be hard to determine the severity of their injuries or ailments, especially if your pet is known to be a little dramatic. For example, some dogs have pretended to cough because they know they’ll get attention for it.
Similarly, it’s also possible for us as owners to take caretaking a tad too far by coddling pets or taking our pets everywhere so the pet doesn’t have to be left at home.
But what is the psychology behind these behaviors of dramatic pets and overly obsessive pet owners? Well, the answer may lie in a behavioral disorder called Munchausen syndrome.
What Is Munchausen Syndrome?
Munchausen syndrome, also known as factitious disorder, is a chronic mental health disorder where individuals pretend to be sick by lying or exaggerating their symptoms.
The name of this complex syndrome comes from the German aristocrat Baron Munchausen, who was known for telling wildly unbelievable tales of his travels.
What Are the Symptoms of Munchausen Syndrome?
There are a few symptoms that indicate that a person may be experiencing Munchausen syndrome.
Inconsistent Medical History
Those with Munchausen often present a dramatic medical history to doctors that often doesn’t align with prior labs and medical tests.
Frequent Hospital Visits
Patients may seem to constantly be getting treated for various ailments for an extended period without much improvement.
Fabricating or Inducing Symptoms of Illness
Those with Munchausen may go as far as hurting themselves to induce symptoms of an illness.
In-depth Medical Knowledge
A person with Munchausen syndrome may have extensive knowledge of medical terminology or specific illnesses.
How Does Munchausen Syndrome Show Up In Pets?
While the warning signs of Munchausen in humans are more evident and well-researched, our pets can fake being ill to gain attention, says Marc Feldman, an international expert in artificial disorders and a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama. Of course, our first instinct if our pets are sick should be to take care of them. However, it is possible that some pets can feign a cough or even exaggerate a limp in order to get some extra love.
But do these exaggerations earn these pets the title of having Munchausen? Given that our pets can’t verbally express their symptoms, diagnosing their true intentions is rather difficult. While there is no official research currently diagnosing pets suffering from Munchausen syndrome, it is possible that pets can sometimes fake an injury to draw your attention to their emotional needs. “They seem to know at a very deep level that this is the way to mobilize attention,” explains Feldman.
Read More: Do Dogs Grieve Other Dogs?
Studying Munchausen Syndrome In Cats
This theory was evident in a study exploring sickness behaviors in cats. The study observed 12 healthy cats and 20 cats suffering from feline interstitial cystitis, a type of bladder inflammation. During the study, researchers determined the sickness levels of the healthy and sick cats through measures like vomiting, refusing food, and not utilizing their litter boxes.
In the first few weeks, which consisted of the same daily routine, both groups of cats displayed few sickness behaviors. However, as their daily routines changed slightly, like changes to their feeding schedule, both groups of cats started exhibiting more signs of sickness. The study’s researchers hypothesized that these behaviors were the cats’ way of signaling that they were upset or troubled by the changes in their daily routine.
While pets may exhibit these behaviors for attention or as a way of communication, sometimes owners may make their pets sick intentionally. This is called Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Read More: How Do Cats Recognize Their Owners?
What Is Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy?
Munchausen by proxy is essentially Munchausen syndrome or factitious disorder imposed on another. Typically, this occurs when an individual lies about medical symptoms or induces physical or mental illnesses in another who is not really sick.
This behavior is often displayed by caretakers like parents looking after their child or another dependent adult or the elderly and can be confirmed through a separation test to see if the patient’s symptoms improve when they are separated from their caretaker.
Can People Have Munchausen By Proxy With Their Pets?
Yes, pets can also be the subject of Munchausen by proxy at the hands of their owners who deliberately injure or make their pets appear sick, often in exchange for sympathy and medication, confirms Feldman. Research on Munchausen by proxy with pets has often been overlooked. However, a study published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice was the first to outline nine suspected cases of Munchausen by proxy observed by animal practitioners in the U.K.
Nearly 1,000 randomly selected veterinary surgeons were given a random questionnaire about animal injuries. This survey identified 448 cases involving non-accidental injuries to pets, nine of which were suspected to be cases of Munchausen by proxy. These cases had signs of pet abuse that closely resembled Munchausen by proxy in humans and included alarming behaviors like owners having numerous visits to different veterinarians, multiple reported pet accidents, deliberately inflicted injuries, and even poisoning of their pets.
Why Do Some People Abuse Their Pets?
You may wonder why anyone would want to harm their adorable pets. Unfortunately, animal abuse can occur for a variety of different reasons, ranging from sadistic behavior, like gaining pleasure from a suffering pet to a way for humans to assert their dominance over their pets.
Utilizing pets to gain access to medications like painkillers is another common reason people may hurt their pets, according to The Washington Post. Feldman explains that pet abusers can also be individuals who often feel alone and lack a good network of family and friends. This is why being the owner of a terribly sick pet can give them the attention they seek.
Subtle signs of animal abuse include a lack of basic needs like adequate amounts of food, water, and a clean home, explains small animal veterinarian Cathy Barnette. However, it’s just as important to pay attention to signs of emotional abuse or neglect in pets.
“Your home should serve as a safe and secure environment for your pet, with a predictable schedule that minimizes stress,” says Barnette. If a pet isn’t getting the emotional attention that they require, is being isolated, or is trapped in an overcrowded house, then their needs are also being compromised. If you suspect that a pet is being abused, it is best to call your local animal control or law enforcement agency.