Why give penguins antidepressants when they don’t even work?


Penguins. Nature’s best dressed flightless birds. Apparently, the UK climate is getting them down, what with all that rain. And contrary to meteorophobic stereotype, penguins actually like it sunny.

So what to do? That’s right. Happy pills!

Staff at the Scarborough Sea Life Sactuary, in Yorkshire, are putting the ‘happy pills’ into the gills of dead fish during feeding time. The South American seabirds hail from Chile and Peru and are used to a sunnier climate. It is the first time the dozen Humboldt penguins at the sea life centre have needed the sporanox pills because of the woeful weather.

But watch out! Antidepressants can be habit forming:

…it is not the first time the penguins have been given medication at the Scarborough centre. In 2011, they were given antidepressants after suffering stress following a break-in. They were left traumatised after a trespasser broke in and chased them. Penguins are particularly vulnerable to any change of routine, but staff said they recovered from the incident.

Just in case you thought this was purely a psychological concern, rest assured that the bias that says that physical health is always more important (or more real) than mental health remains firmly in place, even in these veterinary contexts:

Long-term stress plays havoc with the immune system and increases the chances of catching a cold for both penguins and humans.

You see? We don’t care if these penguins are actually happy. We just want them to not have runny noses.


Which is just as well because we all know that interfering with psychological well-being using drugs is just iffy. And, of course, it doesn’t even work. Here’s the latest from the Montreal Gazette:

One of Canada’s top psychiatrists says too many Canadians are treating life’s normal spells of misery the way they would handle something they dislike about their bodies: By asking a doctor to make their lives better.

[Dr. Joel Paris, professor and past chair of the department of psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University] says: “It’s like cosmetic psychopharmacology: If you don’t like the way you look, you go to a plastic surgeon and get it fixed. If you’re not happy enough, go to a doctor and go on antidepressants.”

…Paris says, the drugs often don’t work, or they produce a temporary placebo effect, which doesn’t last.

Which is okay to say, except that they do work by and large. Even in humans.

Perhaps the Scarborough penguins will help, once and for all, de-stigmatize the use of pharmacotherapy in mental health. It’s pretty simple. Psychological function has a biological basis; biological mechanisms are legitimate targets for therapy. Scientifically, it all makes sense. After all, animals and humans are alike, what with humans actually being animals and everything.

Scepticism toward pharmacotherapy is widespread and often well intended. But it conveys disapproval of those who use such medications, including those who come to rely on them to live meaningful lives.

And who could disapprove of cuddly-wuddly penguins?

2 replies »

  1. The quoted article is slightly confusing and I think rather misleading – Sporanox (Itraconazole) is an anti-fungal agent. There is documented evidence of its use in specific penguin populations, but for the management of the morbidity and mortality related to fungal infections. Hardly a “happy pill” unless you argue that being unwell must make the penguins depressed, and that by extension, treating the illness would then “cure” this. Also, while I agree that antidepressant medications have a firmly established role in the armoury of treatments against this significant mental health problem, there is an argument to be made regarding inappropriate or over-zealous prescription In primary care settings. Not all presentations of low mood equal a depressive disorder; and prescribing a pill (often proving ineffective, but with a side effect profile such as nausea, insomnia or somnolence, decreased libido, etc.) can medicalise difficulties which may prove more remediable through psychosocial interventions – ultimately adding to the difficulties the individual may be experiencing.

    • Great points. The description of Sporanox as a ‘happy pill’ is indeed very misleading, and it makes me wonder how the story gained media traction. Presumably, the animal sanctuary issued a press release on the matter geared more at generating publicity than at informing the public. And I think your points on over-zealous prescription of pills for low mood are also very fair.

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