Attachment-Like Disorder in Orphaned or Stranded Juvenile and Neonatal Cetaceans: Behavioral and Medical Considerations in Support of Mental Wellness Development
IAAAM 2016
Michael T. Walsh1*; Craig Pelton1; Robin Friday2; Kelly Martin3; Linda Erb4; Shelly Marquardt3
1Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA; 2Ocean Embassy, Orlando, FL, USA; 3Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Clearwater, FL, USA; 4Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL, USA


Proper emotional development of young mammals is dependent on the establishment of supportive relationships during the early phases of post birth, growth, and maturation. In human children, a lack of a normal parent-child bond may result in an attachment disorder. It may be defined as a psychological result of social neglect or absence of adequate social and emotional caregiving during childhood.1-3 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, divides the disorders into reactive attachment disorder and disinhibited social engagement disorder. Both may have some application in animals, but this discussion will focus on the former.

Orphan cetaceans in facilities and cetaceans which have stranded as a neonate or at a young age may be raised with an inadequate level of emotional support required from proper parental caregiving cohorts. This can result in a number of behavioral concerns, which can include poor social skills, minimal social and emotional responses, unexplained irritability, lack of cooperation, and inadequate emotional and social skills when providing caretaking responsibilities. Initial efforts with orphaned animals are usually geared toward keeping the animal alive, free from disease, providing nutrition and a warm and safe environment. The intensive level of care and contact time needed for neonates may also result in unrealistic expectations for the developing neonate for constant human contact resulting in problems when that care is removed. While the physical size of successful rescued neonates often precludes the use of placement with cohorts, the human caregivers must be aware of the implications of inadequate social contact. Periods of no contact often occur with isolated orphans, contributing to the development of more adult-like behavior prematurely and potential emotional imbalance. Nutritional needs of the neonate may make sole sourcing to surrogates impractical and may place the young animal in jeopardy of trauma from juveniles or adults. Inadequate nutrition may compromise brain and body development.

Where the animal is limited to human caregivers, an inexperienced staff may act inconsistently, unaware of the potential damage to the orphan with limited contact where the mother would provide constant 24-hour companionship and example. Intervention may take a couple of routes, including adoption by an appropriate female surrogate with a history of caring for young animals when the orphan is age appropriate and nutritional needs can be met. With only human care available, the staff should be trained in the variation of approaches needed for neonates and juveniles, which may differ greatly from adults. Like a surrogate parent, the amount of "face time" with the young animal is greatly increased to offset isolation that results from a complete loss of support from the mother. The potential downside of adopting orphans, where adequate attention is not provided, is an increase in aberrant behavior as the animal develops, including chronic regurgitation which can become life threatening. This may be associated with other physical and behavioral anomalies that may result in other health complications or the activity is misinterpreted as a lack of cooperation resulting in inappropriate training technique application.


The authors would like to sincerely thank those who provide more than the standard care for all phases of an animal's life in all the facilities and especially to those that respond to the needs of wild orphans. Special thanks also to the staffs at Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Dolphin Research Center who, like many others, have an open mind to change and are adaptive to the needs of the many types of animals they care for.

* Presenting author

Literature Cited

1.  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing; 2015.

2.  Rose T. Emotional Readiness. Charleston, SC: 2013:239 p.

3.  Zeanah CH, Berlin LJ, Boris LW. Practitioner review: clinical applications of attachment theory and research for infants and young children. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2011;52(8):819–833. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02399.x.


Speaker Information
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Michael T. Walsh, DVM
Aquatic Animal Health Program
Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL, USA

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