Anaclitic Disorder or '' Anaclitic Depression
''is better defined as that disorder caused by the lack
of a mother’s attachment care. It is that unique
state of mind that first makes you restless, then crestfallen
and in the end, desperate.
This succession of emotional negativity leads to a state
of gloom totally incapable of contrasting the ensuing
deep deperishment. This state is particularly common in
children deprived of the live presence of a nurturing
mother or of another person that might have had to substitute
It is the very same state that befalls dogs when their
mother’s intimacy or that of a human surrogate went
missing and continues to be missing. It must be noted
that while constituting a valid substitute, a different-species
(human) surrogate mother will cause gaps in some important
This discomfort, this precursor of social anxieties,
takes hold in the first few months of life. For this very
reason, it is appropriate to call it a “disorder”
and not an anxiety state.
A “disorder” does not require “maturity”
which is necessary for a state of anxiety to exist. Unfortunately,
one often finds that anxiety is mistakenly applied to
infants and creatures who are incapable of it because
of their early stage of conceptual evolution.
From the book '' Diary: Similarities between Dogs
and Wolves - Enlightening Reflections '',
from the chapter devoted the Mind, part of a writing by
Dr. Sara Signorino Gelo, (who I still thank for
supporting the book with some of her articles). On Pg.
214, liberally translated here, we read: “…..depression
is a clinical condition defined as a low-mood level where,
in broad terms, "mood" is meant as a kind of
perceptive grid by which we assign a meaning toreality”.
I also remember that according to evolutionary thinking,
such decreased mood level is intended as an inviting signal
for group to save energy during a transient phase (adaptive
reaction process). In other words, what we will have here
is an adaptive reaction to a change which can allow one
to successfully overcome that change.
If, however, the mood does not improve or should
even get worse, causing the individual to fall in a state
of severe depression; then, we may be facing an adaptation
failure with a triggering of a ill-adapted-response. At
this point the individual can get to manifest social withdrawal,
loss of functionality i.e., loss of interest in food,
work, friends etc., as well as be headed for more grave
elements such as somatization disorder, sleep disorder
(insomnia or hypersomnia) etc. ... ''
Although depression is a complex condition that cannot
be assigned to children and dogs, still in a specific
case we can call it '' Anaclitic Disorder '' ('' Anaclitic
Depression '') as a real evidence because it has its roots
in the neonatal age. Therefore, we are not talking about
a developed depression as psycho-pathology, but as a transitional
state which, if allowed to continue over time, can reach
a point of no return.
This condition originates from a deprivation of affectionate
care, a lack of nurturing assistance as defined in the
language of loving parental care. It is that caring and
bond between mother and child that physically occurs as
soon as a creature is born.
The lack of caresses, of a sense of belonging,of a mingling
of body heat and smells, brings “all those creatures
that (due to evolution) live in a social family”
to experience behavioural imbalances, recognized in humans
as the anaclitic depression stage.
René Spitz is an Austrian-born
psychoanalyst who was the first to demonstrate
the importance of a mother’s care to her child.
His deductions stemmed from observing orphaned children
who, while being in institutions (orphanages) that provided
basic necessities like food, clothing and protection,
were unfortunately deprived of '' that magic touch ''
which can only exist between a mother and her child.
Anaclitic depression points out the child who needs to
lean on someone, who needs to cradle himself into the
reassuring and affectionate presence of a loving mother.
Such a condition, as a whole, encompasses the abandonment
syndrome, identified by the lack of family care that goes
beyond a “mechanical nursing care'' type-of-behaviour.
This condition leads the little ones who suffer from it,
to eventually fall into a psychological death.
The lack of mom’s warm and soft touch or of anyone
else’s willing to dedicate himself to the child,
eventually decrees in the latter a behavioural imbalance
that leads to passive or aggressive attitudes and to grave
social problems (an incapacity to accept the group and
its communal life and which can lead to open aversion
The situation worsens when the child suffers a series
of abandonments from people who take care of him but do
not keep their commitment to his welfare (which is the
prerogative of an orphaned child). These repeated separation
selicit to him the confirmation of an affective instability,
which is a very dangerous thing for a living being who
is looking for a sense of belonging; in fact, in this
situation the child’s mood instability will increase
towards a progressive unbalanced regression of psycoaffective
Unfortunately, this also happens in families where there
is no awareness of the adequatecare required and where,
therefore, '' attachment '' is not given the correct importance.
Behaviours discovered by René Spitz’sobservation:
- First month: complaints and appeals;
- Second month: crying and weight loss;
- Third month: rejection of physical contact, insomnia,
delayed motor development, lacklustre communications,
- After the third month (and growing exponentially): cessation
of crying, lethargy.
The baby is subject to retardation which later leads to
dejection due to lack of stimuli.
This problem was more easily observed where assistance
is often scarce: in orphanages, as we talk about children
and in dog-pounds/shelters with regard to dogs. It is
valid to point out that for dogs as well as for children,
this happens even in families where there is no awareness
of proper-care and therefore where '' attachment '' is
not given its correct importance.
- In orphanages, as in dog-pounds and kennels shelters,
there are many '' orphans ''; we find many puppies that
are brought in as new-borns, or slightly older and there
are also adults whose “owners'' for a number of
reasons no longer want them. The lack of certainty on
belonging to a house and a family, the lack of daily affectionate
care such as caresses, cleaning of hair, eyes and ears,
playing and walking together, the preparation of food
and a secluded place to rest, all this create difficulties
in those unfortunate individuals that can lead to the
same consequences as those noted in children.
- People who collect puppies(as well as adults and elderly
dogs) are to blame too, as they assist them for a short
time and then entrust them onto other people in a crescendo
of handing-over until the poor things land at their final
home. Usually this final home is a dog-pound/shelter and
rarely a private person. But even if it were to be a private
person, by then their life/consciousness wouldbe marked
by loneliness and uncertainty and by the awareness that
they can rely only on themselves and that (if they had
been humans) - socialism is nothing but a political movement!
Socialism - that complex of ideas, thoughts, concepts,
doctrines and political orientations who desire an economic,
social and juridical equality for all citizens.
Socialism is defined as '' economic and juridical
model '' that embodies the true meaning of '' social '',
and that '' people come first!''
Every time they are pawned oversome of these dogs still
find the strength to adapt but many others do not. The
sad aspect of this being that, in addition to the severe
discomfort of the creature, what stands out is the hypocrisy
of those people who, acting in the name of “Animal
Lovers”, show the flip side of the “do-goodders’”
coin, which is nothing more than a selfish form of self-aggrandizing
while blaming everybody else.
The succession of negative events with the associated
worsening separations in various forms, destabilize the
already fragile psyche of individuals. The resulting behaviour
due to these endured troubled-life experiences, “gifted
onto them by people claiming to be these helpless creatures’
It is possible for dogs and children to escape from this
discomforting situation only if they are provided long-term
and enduring support.
A gradual increase in the death rate was noted whenever
the stunted development was too far advanced and too late
to provide the needed support.
Harry, F. & Harlow, H.F. "The Nature of
first published in American Psychologist, 1958, 13, 673-685.
Harlow carried out a now famous experiment on two
infant monkeys: the little monkeys were separated from
their mother and locked in a cage with two maternal-looking
contraptions. One contraption was made of warm and soft
plush material which did not provide any kind of food
subsistence like milk; the other mother-looking contraption
did provide milk but was made of bare chicken-wireand
felt cold to the touch. Depending on the situation they
experienced, the little monkeys favoured one or the other
maternal substitute: the plush-one when they felt threatened
and in need of comfort; the metal-one to satisfy their
This proved that physical contact is a primary need equally
important but independent from that of food. Both of these
primary needs are important and neither one can be dismissed.
Often, we hear people talking about “anxieties”
when children or dogs are left behind at school by parents
or at home by their owners. They show distresses similar
to those described by René Spitz (restlessness,
a sense of loss, destabilization, etc.). However, these
distresses don’t originate from the absence of parents,
rather from not being used to it; as such it isa form
of insecurity due to a shortage in education and its associated
On the other hand, the '' separation disorder”
or ”abandonment syndrome” is solely due to
lack of maternal care and it is not experienced from momentary
separation. Indeed, if the child and the dog had received
proper parental care, they would know deep inside that
'' She '' will come back to them!
I believe it is wrong to rate distressat a higher level
than it deserves, solely because the greater maturity
of the persons making the observation does not allow them
to view things at a less complex conceptual level than
To speak about the following social anxieties and hardships
is a way to identify certain types of behaviour that however
deviate a lot from real emotional flexibility.
Social anxieties - Children and Dogs:
Lack of expressivity
Specifically, with regard to Anaclitic Disorder, I would
like to give the following example to facilitate the understanding
of the real recognition of its originating cause–it
is crucial to identify the correct cause of the hardship;
otherwise the recovery work will never come to fruition.
Healing is possible!
Example - '' Billy, a little dog three-year-old,
had a serene life until something changed, and he began
to see his human companion as a stranger and even as an
Not hostile in the sense of being mean, but an hostility
due to a lack of consideration, a lack of caring; he had
turned into a stranger who no longer spoke his language''
A very busy owner who returns home in the evening
tired from work and perhaps loaded with worries might
have little desire to play and cuddle with his dog in
the manner and time required to make him feel '' important
'', to make him feel an intimate companion and not a roommate,
to bestow those special attentions that strengthen relationships.
Lost in his own thoughts, the owner satisfies a request
from the little dog with some fleeting little caress,
a good tasty soup and a nice little toy; first one thing,
then the other or perhaps all at the same time, but without
much thought; so that he can be free again to slip into
his own thoughts. These he will then abandon momentarily
to accompany the dog out to the park where the little
pooch will find many other dogs who '' perhaps '',just
like him, live a life of being simply guests to the humans.
Is not necessary to be tired to behave like that,
because there are people who commonly behave this way
with their dogs, following the 'long standing belief''
that the dog should not be given particular importance
and that once you have fed him, given him some toys and
enabledhim to meet friends at the park, he is happy!
This kind-of-thinking is also valid for many humans-only
families ... attitudes typical of people who substitute
feelings with materiality, toys with computers, kisses
with sweets and sweet-promises of the next cornucopia
of materiality on the way.
It would be OK if it were a one-off occurrence but
it is a problem when this behaviour becomes a habit.
People forget their dogs.
Parents forget their children.
Going back to Billy:
'' feeling a little 'guilty, the owner got another dog
to keep Billy company. Billy was very happy and the success
of his decision led the owner to take even more time off
the dogs. Billy was not all that bothered by the whole
thing, but the other dog (Brenda) was. It was a puppy
who came from a family, not from a breeder; and in that
family, she had lived with Mom until the day she was taken
away to keep company to Billy. The void she felt for her
same species company was filled by Billy but not the void
she felt from missing the people she had left. This void
was not filled because the escalation of the progressive
detachment of the new owner became such that, practically,
the dogs only saw him in the morning when he woke and
in the evening when he returned; he greeted them, fed
them and let them be alone in the living room; this was
the extent of his behaviour from the moment that he saw
that the new puppy was well enough with Billy and that
Billy was enough of a Father to her!
Even if the man was not much more of a fleeting presence,
even the lack of that bit of presence, began to destabilize
Brenda who began to lose weight although she always ate
with appetite everything that was proffered in her bowl;
and then some behavioural peculiarities became more evident:
more active movements but restless in their form, more
submissive and more sensitive to changes - playing with
objects around the house, she would often destroy them;
upon the return of the owner she would be so excited that
it was almost impossible to keep her still; during her
walks she would be pulling all over the place as if chasing
who knows what or whom.
Before thinking of a psychological problem, she was put
through all sort of diagnostic tests to eliminate the
possibility she had some disease.
While it was ascertained that the dog was healthy, she
soon became incredibly emaciated. When in alert situations
her mood was definitely agitated and when feeling threatened,
she became more secluded than necessary.
Her diet was changed and for a while this foresight helped.
It was only the bestowed attention by the owner (having
realized his culpability) that made it possible for her
to make it through the critical phase of '' almost ''
no return. Little by little she slowly came out of that
phase which was taking her to a psychological death for
sure and probably, to the physical one as well. That is
because mental illnesses often cause physical ailments
that become pathological conditions.''
All of this happens to many dogs housed in shelters,
to many others who are not living in a cooperative enterprisewithin
the human family they belong to, and also to many who
have not known a Mother, and to many who have been abandoned
and / or moved from one family to another as if they were
a billiard ball in search of a side pocket.
In our very own little shelter of lost souls (we run
a non-profit dog shelter), we could mention Evy and Taron,
Don Chuck, Carletto, Uncle Albert, Deb, Charlie, Rey and
sadly, many others, that to rehabilitate them (and some
only partially so) took us about two years ... and even
then, their recovery is not free from sad shadows of a
past full of deficiencies!
In the canine world that we created, the habit is to
separate puppies from their Mom at a very early age so
that their attachment is shifted onto people instead.
This causes an unbalanced and deficient development in
many respects, because even if a person can properly care
for the puppies, still such a person will never be able
to replace the support that only an individual of the
same species can provide; the subtleties that elude man
do not escape a surrogate mother of the same species.
Also, it is wrong to make them live with man in a frugal
way because they will not sufficiently get used to habits
different from those of their own species. To live with
man in a frugal way means that it is not sufficient to
provide the dog with a bed, food, water, teaching it to
relieve himself outside and allow him to run around a
bit here and there, as this not his ideal life in a family
group (pack). In a pack, there is no action of a single
member that is not intimately connected to another member
and all actions are emotionally involved,demonstrating
unity within the family group. These actions are not limited
to work and survival but they are also caring and teaching
behaviours; all of which provide a strong bond and deep
sense of belonging to the family unit.
In our world, these imbalances (studied by Spitz)do happen,
willing or forced, in situations of abandonment and in
those of improper care.
Anaclitic Depression, that disorder caused by the lack
of a mother’s attachment care, is that mental illness
caused by the absence of parental care and the effects
that it produces, have nothing to do with separation anxiety.
The latter is strictly a human experience manifested from
consciously real or perceived loss, while anaclitic
depression is due to a “general deprivation '' of
maternal care and not from a temporary maternal separation!
Let us reflect well on the place where the original
observations were made during the experiment, with the
two little monkeys, and on those dog-pound pictures that
put black on white in dramatic situations and let us not
forget those dogs belonging to private people that having
no educational knowledge, often are supported by “professionals”
who unfortunately do not make a distinction between human
and canine psychology
Bach flowers, pheromone
essences and milk extracts will never replace a Mother’s
From the book: A Te - Educazione
Naturale - Progetto Scuola Ambiente
di Barbara Tullio e Paolo Caldora