Unfortunately, sometimes mental health issues in people cause harm to the pets in their homes. In certain cases, the pets – or children – of a mentally ill person can be intentionally harmed if the pet owner or parent has Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
What Is Munchausen Syndrome?
Munchausen syndrome is a mental health disorder in which people imagine or create symptoms of illness in themselves. They do it to gain the attention of others, especially medical professionals. In some instances, the person will act upon others, usually young children or pets. When that occurs, it is referred to as Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP). A proxy is a person acting for another, as is the case with pet owners or parents.
Because so few studies have looked at MSBP in pets, the number of animals harmed in this manner is unknown. In a study looking at MSBP in the U.K., the investigators approached 1,000 veterinarians, who reported 448 cases of non-accidental injuries in animals, six of which the submitting veterinarians believed were instances of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Led by Drs. Ranald and Helen Munro, the researchers noted three other cases may have also resulted from owners deliberately hurting their pets. Some commonalities were found in the suspicious cases, such as how owners would frequently change veterinarians or request frequent appointments that otherwise did not seem justified or necessary. In one case, an owner allegedly requested four appointments on the same day. In another, the article describes one man and his dogs seen by their veterinarian, purportedly because the dogs had been poisoned by a neighbor. The man was later convicted of attempting to poison his own child and was found to have tried to poison two other pets seen by other veterinarians.
Signs of MSBP
Whether the proxy is human or pet, the incidence of Munchausen syndrome by proxy is unknown but is estimated to be extremely rare.
Some common signs of MSBP, whether seen in humans or pets, include:
- Recurring or persistent illness in the proxy without a diagnosis
- The clinical findings do not correlate with the provided history
- The illness improves or ceases altogether when the victim (human or pet) is separated from the perpetrator
- Unusual signs in the course of the illness that are not clinically logical
- The presumptive diagnosis may be based solely on the report of the perpetrator without any support from the clinician
- Unexplained illness or death in other children or pets in the home
Malingering By Proxy and Munchausen Syndrome by Internet
A variant of MSBP is malingering by proxy. In these cases, the owner invents symptoms or intentionally harms a pet in order to gain something of value, such as money or drugs. This has been a worsening issue across the U.S., particularly in regard to opioid abuse and social media fundraising pages. In these instances, the perpetrator may be harming the pet and exploiting humans. For example, an owner may deliberately harm a pet and then request opioid-specific pain medications. In other cases, the person may invent symptoms or harm the pet and then seek monetary contributions for the pet’s care.
With the advent of the internet, there is a newer version of Munchausen syndrome, sometimes called Munchausen Syndrome by Internet (MSI). Perpetrators of MSI may use social media websites, online support groups, and similar venues to tell their fabricated stories of injury, illness, and/or tragedy and receive empathy from others. Like Munchausen syndrome and MSBP, this appears to be a mental illness where the perpetrator seeks attention and emotional gratification. Since it does not involve external rewards, it is not considered malingering, although the victims, the folks who expend empathy and emotional energy supporting these perpetrators, may not feel that way. Additionally, because of the vast amount of accessible information on the internet, perpetrators have an easier time creating descriptions of conditions or obtaining images from people or websites showing real conditions in order to make their stories more believable. The stories perpetrators tell may be of themselves (MSI) or of a loved family member, whether human or pet (Munchausen by proxy by internet). They may also create more than one character in the forum, what has oftentimes been termed a “sock puppet”, so as to garner more attention, create novelty, or add “another” point of view of the perpetrator’s supposed illness in order to lend validity to it.
Whether it is Munchausen syndrome by proxy or malingering by proxy, and whether or not the internet is utilized in the deceit, communication between the social agencies that work fighting child abuse and animal abuse is of utmost importance. Agencies fighting drug abuse and fraud may also become involved, as well as agencies offering mental health services. The National Link Coalition has information on where to report animal abuse within the United States.