Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

The Former French President’s Depressed Dog: Jacques Chirac and Sumo

Jacques Chirac's dog suffered from depression and aggressive anxiety.

      The French public was somewhat shocked to learn that their former president, Jacques Chirac, and his little white dog, Sumo, had ended their relationship on a violent note. Sumo, a Maltese terrier, was originally a gift to Chirac's wife Bernadette from their grandson Martin, but the first lady said her husband "adopted him immediately and he became his dog." The dog accompanied Chirac everywhere and appeared to be a happy and friendly companion. The story released to the press was that small dog underwent treatment for depression afterJacques Chirac and Sumo leaving the Elysee palace, when Chirac lost the French presidency to Nicolas Sarkozy. This depression has resulted in unpredictable and aggressive behavior which has caused them to part company with their pet.

      Bernadette Chirac told a Paris newspaper that Sumo was used to roaming the large gardens of the Elysee and could not adjust when the Chiracs moved into the spacious Paris apartment formerly owned by the family of the late Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The Maltese terrier apparently found that down-sizing to an apartment on the Quai Voltaire was unbearable and, according to Mrs. Chirac, severe depression has turned him from an innocent white fluff-ball into a ferocious and unpredictable biter of ex-presidents. Twice he bit Chirac hard enough so that medical attention was required. The relationship between Chirac and his his dog had clearly deteriorated and this resulted in the dog being sent away to live on a farm.

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      Can a dog really be depressed? Certainly Sumo had seemed to be having some sort of emotional problems. He had lost his appetite, was not eating or drinking the way that he normally did and thus had lost weight. He seemed to be lethargic, and spent a lot more time than usual sleeping. When he was awake he seemed nervous, edgy and common events seemed to worry and occasionally anger him. None of the usual activities that normally made him happy seemed to interest him. Any psychologist seeing a human being with Sumo's symptoms would conclude that he was probably suffering from some kind of depression or anxiety condition. The problem is that Sumo is not a person dog.

      It was the early 1980's when Nicholas Dodman of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University was standing next to a colleague watching a dog that had been brought into the Animal Behavior Clinic and was showing symptoms similar those described in Sumo. He concluded that the dog was depressed and anxious. His colleague shook his head warned him about the dangers of treating dogs as if they had such human-like feelings. He argued "Dogs don't experience the same mental states and emotions that people do."

      Dodman's colleague was really restating one of the beliefs that many scientists have held since the 1600's. It began with René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician and biologist who claimed that only humans have feelings and conscious mental processes. Animals were thought to be simply the equivalent of biological machines with no psychological processes worth mentioning. Two hundred years later Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution changed our view of the biological world, challenged Descartes. He suggested that the emotional experiences of animals are quite similar to those of humans.

      Dodman was clearly siding with Darwin when he answered his colleague saying "Well, how about this? Let's give the dog an anti-depression drug and see what happens."

      What happened made history since the dog's behavior improved dramatically. At the biological level of analysis this is what should have happened since the brain and neurochemistry of the dog is very similar to that of humans.

      Today most veterinarians are trained to accept that animals have emotions and can suffer from some of the same emotional problems that people do. This includes not only depression, but also anxiety, irrational fears and phobias, obsessive and compulsive behaviors and a broad range of neurotic and stress related problems. Currently there is a growing field of research called Animal Behavioral Pharmacology, and most veterinarians have been trained how to use psychologically active drugs. Drugs for pets are now big business and the Pfizer Drug Company has established a companion animal division which brought in nearly a billion dollars last year.

      How widespread such emotional conditions are in pets is difficult to determine. However Sainsbury's Pet Insurance in the UK has been collecting some information. They suggest that depression and anxiety are widespread in the British canine population; the report indicated that 623,000 dogs and cats in the UK had suffered mentally in the previous year, while more than 900,000 suffered loss of appetite because of stress or emotional problems.


     Deficits in serotonin, a hormone that serves as a neurotransmitter in the brain, seem to play an important role in the control of depression . However environmental conditions, such as loss or separation from its owner, loss of a companion dog, trauma from injury, disease or abuse, or being tied out on a tether and socially isolated for long periods can trigger depression dogs. Moving to a new location, along with the change in a familiar routine (as in Sumo's case) can also induce these negative emotional changes.


     When faced with psychological problems in dogs veterinarians have used Dodman's strategy and turned to anti-depression drugs designed for people. Just as Dodman predicted, Prozac in various forms did successfully control the depression and anxiety related problems in many dogs. This prompted Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company that introduced Prozac, to create a chewable beef flavored version of the medication specifically designed for use by dogs.


     Certain behavioral treatments can also combat depression. Increased exercise, which is known to help depressed people, also helps depressed dogs. Increased social interaction and play, and perhaps the addition of another dog to the family to provide continued or renewed social support and companionship can often improve the dog's condition dramatically.


     However psychologists recognize that depression is often situational, and depends upon an individual's relationships and the emotional situation in which they find themselves living. Dogs have been bred to be empathic and responsive to human moods, and they may become depressed if their master is showing signs of melancholy. This may well have been a factor in Sumo's case since Jacques Chirac left office under a cloud. There have been charges of election fund related fraud, secret slush funds kept in Japanese bank accounts, and charges of misuse of public funds stemming well back into the 1990's when Chirac was mayor of Paris. There has been a continuous stream of hearings and court actions and these must have had a depressing and distressing effect on Chirac since he was now no longer protected by political immunity. Thus Sumo's psychological depression may well have reflected his response to the negative emotional climate that he found himself living in when the family left the presidential palace and moved to their city apartment. This seems to be partly confirmed by the fact that after the small white dog was moved to a farm owned by Chirac family friends his symptoms seem to have subsided and Sumo hasn't attacked or snapped at anyone since leaving Paris.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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