In my previous blogs, I have looked separately at pregnancy delusions (i.e., women and men who think and claim they are pregnant but are not – including Couvade Syndrome) and culture bound syndromes (i.e., a combination of psychiatric and/or somatic symptoms viewed as a recognizable disease within specific cultures or societies). Since writing those blogs I unearthed a fascinating academic paper examining one of the strangest culture bound syndromes I have ever come across. While idly looking for some inspiration for a new blog, I happened (by chance) to come across a blog written in November 2011 by Jesse Bering on the Scientific American website which began with this opening paragraph.
“Are you suffering abdominal pain or discomfort, fatigue, nausea, flatulence, heartburn, and acid reflux? Have you been having difficulty urinating, or experiencing pain while doing so? Oh, and one other question – have you been spontaneously expelling microscopic bits of disintegrated dog fetuses through your urethra? If you answered “yes” to all of the above, then you may be suffering from “Puppy Pregnancy Syndrome”.
Bering’s report was based on a 2003 paper published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, entitled “Puppy pregnancy in humans: A culture-bound disorder in rural West Bengal, India”. The paper described a phenomenon that has only ever been reported in this one Indian area (near Kolkata) where both and women are convinced that it is possible to become pregnant and carrying a canine foetus if they are bitten by dogs – particularly if the dog is sexually aroused and because the dog’s saliva contains dog gametes. The phenomenon is a fairly recent one as there are few reports of ‘puppy pregnancy’ prior to 2000.
The paper, by Dr. Arabinda N. Chowdhury (Professor of the Institute of Psychiatry, Kolkata, India) and colleagues featured seven cases of people suffering from puppy pregnancy (six males and one female). The men claim to give birth to the puppies via their penis (in a similar excruciating fashion to the way that men have to pass kidney stones). At night, the female case claimed she could hear the puppies barking in her abdomen.
They also interviewed a further 42 adult villagers to see how prevalent the belief in puppy pregnancy was. They reported that three-quarters of the villagers interviewed believed with “definite certainty” that puppy pregnancy existed (73%), while only 9% had no belief in the phenomenon. In fact, it was reported that almost all the villagers could name someone whose unexplained death they believed was the direct consequence of a toxic puppy pregnancy (including those who were among the most well educated). The authors noted that in relation to the cases they outlined that:
“Psychiatric status showed that there was a clear association of obsessive-compulsive disorder in two cases, anxiety-phobic locus in one and three showed no other mental symptom except this solitary false belief and preoccupation about the puppy pregnancy…One case (11-year-old child) exemplified how the social imposition of this cultural belief made him a case that allegedly vomited out an embryo of a dog foetus… the cases presented a mix of somatic and psychological complaints and their help-seeking behaviour was marked”.
Due to the widespread belief in the existence of puppy pregnancy fact, the village community has their own “medical” specialists who “treat” the condition called bara ojhas. These so-called specialists provide remedies and/or perform abortion-inducing rituals. During the early stages of “pregnancy”, the use of herbal medicines by bara ojhas are said to help dissolve the puppy foetuses so that they are naturally expelled through the person’s genitals in an unobtrusive way. In Jesse Bering’s account of puppy pregnancy, he describes the case of a male:
“After one 24-year-old college graduate had an encounter with a stray dog that scratched him on the leg six months earlier, he became extremely wary of dogs because he was deathly afraid that one might knock him up. He was so preoccupied with dogs that even in the interview room he was apprehensive that a dog may come out from under the table. To address his unending circular ruminations about puppy pregnancy, his dog anxiety, and his obsessive-compulsive need to search for microscopic fetal canine parts in his urine, he was prescribed Clomipramine (an antidepressant) and Thioridazine (an antipsychotic). Importantly, he also underwent a month of behavioral reconditioning with a dog while being treated as an inpatient”.
Obviously, the condition may have no medical basis, but on a psychological level, the people in the Indian community experiencing a puppy pregnancy believe it is real. Dr. Chowdhury and colleagues believe that the crux of the condition is “the absence of any realistic consideration about the absurdity of asexual animal pregnancy and pregnancy in males (to the degree of delusional conviction).”
Dr. Chowdhury and colleagues believe that Puppy Pregnancy Syndrome meets the criteria for a genuine Culture-Bound Disorder because the mass delusional belief occurs as a consequence of “emotionally fuelled social transmission” only found in a very particular community (in this case, rural West Bengal), and that the disorder needs “proper cultural understanding for its effective management”.
Jesse Bering’s blog also made reference to another culture where giving birth to animals is a widely held belief. Bering cited the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Azande people in Africa who believe that some women can give birth to cats. I actually managed to get hold of Evans-Pritchard 1976 book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. The Azande believe that many animals are witches or dead witches inhabiting the animals. The most feared animal by the Azande are wildcats (called the adandara) that they believe have sex with female villagers. These women then allegedly give birth to kittens who are then said to breastfeed them like human children. The appendices in Evans-Pritchard’s book (based on his interviews with the Azande) reported:
“The male cats have sexual relations with women who give birth to kittens and suckle them like human infants. Everyone agrees that these cats exist and that it is fatal to see them…There are not many women who give birth to cats, only a few. An ordinary woman cannot bear cats but only a woman whose mother has borne cats can bear them after the manner of her mother”.
When interviewing Azande people, Evans-Pritchard said that his personal contacts included only two cases of people who had actually seen adandara. He then went on to note:
“Azande often refer to lesbian practices between women as adandara…This comparison is based upon the like inauspiciousness of both phenomena and on the fact that both are female actions which may cause the death of any man who witnesses them…Homosexual women are the sort who may well give birth to cats and be witches also. In giving birth to cats and in lesbianism the evil is associated with the sexual functions of women”.
Given that so little information was given in Evans-Pritchard’s book, I have no idea if the belief in adandara could be classed as a culture-bound syndrome, but there do seem to be similarities with Puppy Pregnancy Syndrome.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bering, J. (2011). Puppy pregnancy syndrome: Men who think they are pregnant with dogs. Scientific American, November 15. Located at: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/2011/11/15/puppy-pregnancy-syndrome-men-who-are-pregnant-with-dogs/
Chowdhury, A., Mukherjee, H., Ghosh, H.K. & Chowdhury, S. (2009). Puppy pregnancy in humans: A culture-bound disorder in rural West Bengal, India. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 49, 35-42.
E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1976). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Voice of America (2012). Bizarre medical myth persists in rural India.Located at: http://www.voanews.com/content/bizarre-medical-myth-persists-in-rural-india-143818636/179310.html