Does postpartum depression exist in animals?

According to a survey carried out on Thursday September 23, 2021 by OpinionWay for the Qare teleconsultation platform, postpartum depression is experienced by 30% of women and diagnosed in 5% of respondents. But what about the animal world?

Can we talk about postpartum depression in the animal world?

Spoiler: there is no clear-cut answer, but assumptions are on the table. “We can never answer definitively, but we can try to correlate changes or events experienced by the female, with the fact that she will express maternal behavior or not. And moreover, we will have to make the link between the expression of this maternal behavior and the fact that it is linked to psychological disorders, such as exacerbated anxiety or general apathy”, estimates Raymond Nowak, director of research at the CNRS, specialist in behavior in sheep.

It is difficult to detect possible postpartum depression in animals, because of the following reason: they have no verbal expression. “Behavioral abnormalities exist, especially in inexperienced females, but we cannot infer a mental state that resembles depression.”, continues the specialist. However, there are parades to try to understand what the animals are feeling.

Elephant mothers don’t slow down when giving birth to a baby

Postnatal depression, a difficult hypothesis to confirm in animals

The researcher starts from the following postulate:We know that the expression of maternal behavior is linked to profound neuro-hormonal changes and these neuro-hormonal changes are going to be responsible for these caring behaviors.” In other words, it is therefore necessary to determine what is the relationship between these neuro-hormonal changes and the fact that a female will express her behavior in a correct or incorrect way.

In farm animals, behavioral disorders can be felt in the mother. This takes the form of a lack of interest in the baby or a refusal to breastfeed – especially in ruminants. These drifts are more frequently noticed in the female who gives birth to her first child. “Although this is very rare, it is possible to observe infanticidal behavior in rabbits, sows or bitches, which can incite the mother to devour their young., says Raymond Nowak. The history of the female also matters a great deal, as it can influence the quality of the bond forged with the baby.

Moreover, the rejection of one’s offspring in animals can result from suffering encountered during childhood. “The parallel with the human being can be realized, and postpartum depression could be more frequent in a mother who herself was in a family where the mother-child dyad was dysfunctional.says Cécile Garcia, primatologist, researcher at the CNRS.

The hippocampus, an outstanding father

“Social isolation is part of a depressive state”

In non-human primates, as in other social animals, the idea that they can endure postpartum depression is not incongruous: “there there are probably risk factors in primates as well,” she points out. For the moment, no study in the natural environment has emerged on this aspect. It is possible to identify hypotheses by following the animal before and during gestation in order to see if the individual is chronically in a depressed state. “In some women, there may be neglect or conversely an obsession with maternal care, but it is difficult to attribute these behaviors to the label of postpartum depression., cautiously asserts the specialist. Like the baboon, a species in which Cécile Garcia was able to observe primiparous females who neglected their young.

Concerning depression, it can be expressed by different signs, but once again, it is difficult to highlight postpartum depression in non-human primates without a longitudinal follow-up (ie several weeks before and several weeks after the farrowing). “In case of discomfort, a female will groom or scratch more frequently. Social isolation is part of being depressed.”

Finally, the role of the male may be criteria to be taken into account. “In most non-human primates, paternal care is poorly developed. But it is possible that the presence of ‘helpers’ attenuates the phenomenon of postpartum depression”, concludes Cécile Garcia. In tamarins, the male is present to provide care for the young.

Read also:

Animals: these caring fathers who raise their little ones

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