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Barking mad? A brief overview of clinical lycanthropy

With the recent success of the Twilight’ series of films, lycanthropy has once again come to the fore in popular culture. Lycanthropy is usually defined as a supernatural behaviour in which a person believes they have changed into a wolf (i.e., a shape-shifting ‘werewolf’). However, as a psychiatric syndrome, ‘clinical lycanthropy’ is similar to a psychosis and involves individuals who have delusional behaviour and believe they are transforming (or have already have transformed) into a non-human animal (often – but not necessarily – a wolf). Technically, this should be referred to as ‘therianthropy’ or ‘zoanthropy’ but in the psychiatric literature it is ‘lycanthropy’ that tends to be used as the ‘catch-all’ name of the disorder. These changes (understandably) only happen in the mind of the affected individual. Although there is a clear similarity to various psychotic behaviours, there do not appear to be any specific diagnosis of mental or neurological illness associated with the resulting behaviour. Some authors have also described lycanthropy as an identity disorder.

The delusional belief in metamorphosis to animal form is not new and back in the 18th century was termed ‘Insania Zooanthropica’. A reference as recent as 1992 by Dr. W.M. Davis and colleagues – in the Canadian Medical Association Journal – referred to it as ‘lycomania’. Those individuals affected with clinical lycanthropy typically have other conditions such as clinical depression, mood disorders (e.g., bipolar disorder), and schizophrenia. A 2004 study published describing clinical lycanthropy in over 30 cases by Dr. Petra Garlipp (Hannover Medical School Germany) and colleagues in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica proposed some diagnostic criteria (based on past and/or current behaviour) by which the disorder can be diagnosed:

  • Individuals report in “a moment of clarity” or retrospectively that they sometimes feel and/or have felt like an animal.
  • Individuals behave in a way that resembles animal behaviour (creeping, barking, etc.).
  • Individuals voice their beliefs that they are animals.

The review paper by Dr. Garlipp and her colleagues also noted the different types of animal transformation that have occurred in the psychological and psychiatric literature. Obviously human-to-wolf (or other canine) cases exist, but they appear to be in the minority. Other types include humans believing they have transformed into cats, tigers, hyenas, horses, birds, frogs and bees. There are also cases of “multiple serial lycanthropy” where a range of animal transformations is reported within one individual. For instance, one case reported in a 1989 issue of the journal Psychopathology described a man who believed he had transformed first into a dog, and then into a horse, and a cat. There is some evidence that people who report lycanthropic experiences really do perceive the feelings as real. Neuroimaging studies (again published in the journal Psychopathology) have shown that the areas of the brain (e.g., cerebellum) concerned with body shape and body image perception are activated in such individuals.

There also appear to be unusual variants of lycanthropy in the psychological literature. In rare cases, individuals may also believe that other people around them have changed into animals. This has been called ‘lycanthropic intermetamorphosis’ (by Dr. H.F. Moselhy, in a 1999 issue of Psychopathology) and ‘lycanthropy spectrum’ (by Dr. A.G. Nejad in a 2007 issue of Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica). A study published in a 2009 issue of the journal Addiction and Health by Dr. Mansoureh Nasirian and colleagues (all at the Kerman University of medical Science, Iran) described the symptoms of lycanthropy in other individuals appearing after an unemployed 28-year old man had taken the drug ecstasy. The man believed that three of his close relatives had changed into donkey, boar, and horse. The authors argued that ecstasy drug can induce paranoid psychosis similar to schizophrenia, and that in their lycanthropy case, the ecstasy appeared to have had a role in the man’s underlying susceptibility to schizophrenia.

There is also an interesting case report in the psychiatric literature of a man who had both clinical lycanthropy and Cotard’s Syndrome (where individuals hold the delusional belief that they are dead – figuratively or literally – and do not exist) that I examined in a previous blog. He also had zoophilic tendencies. This particular case was reported by Dr. A.G. Nehad and Dr. K. Toofani in a 2005 issue of the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. Their patient had a bipolar mood disorder, along with a psychotic delusion that he had transformed into a dog. Confusingly, he also suffered from the delusion that he was dead. The authors also reported that he was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with sheep. As far as the authors are aware, this is the only case of its kind. In this case, they believed that the man’s zoophilic orientation producing a sense of guilt were the most important factors causing his delusions.

Despite the rareness of the disorder, Dr. Petra Garlipp – in an invited comment on the paper by Nehad and Toofani – thinks it is more common than is reported. She concludes:

“Lycanthropy is a delusional symptom rarely described in the literature but probably seen a lot more often in clinical psychiatry. Reasons for this discrepancy may be the often short duration of the symptomatology, the lack of interpretation as lycanthropy if the metamorphosis is not verbally uttered by the patient and just the behaviour is shown”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Davis, W.M. Wellwuff, H.G., Garew, L. & Kydd, O.U. (1992). Psychopharmocology of lycanthropy. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 146, 1191-1197.

Dening, T.R. & West, A. (1989). Multiple serial lycanthropy. A case report. Psychopathology, 22, 344–347.

Fahy, T.A. (1989). Lycanthropy: A review. Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, 82, 37-39.

Garlipp, P. (2005). Invited comment (on ‘Co-existence of lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome in a single case’). Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111, 252.

Garlipp, P., Gödecke-Koch, T., Dietrich, D.E. & Haltenhof, H (2004). Lycanthropy: Psychopathological and psychodynamic aspects. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 109, 19-22.

Keck, P.E., Pope, H.G., Hudson, J.I., McElroy, S.L. & Kulick, A.R. (1988). Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century. Psychological Medicine, 18, 113–120.

Larner, A.J (2010). Neurological signs: Lycanthropy. Advances in Clinical Neurocience and Rehabilitation, 10(4), 50.

Moselhy, H.F. (1999). Lycanthropy: New evidence of its origin. Psychopathology, 32, 173–176.

Nasirian M., Banazadeh, N. & Kheradmand, A. (2009). Rare variant of lycanthropy and ecstasy. Addiction and Health, 1(1), 53-56.

Nejad, A.G. (2007). Belief in transforming another person into a wolf: Could it be a variant of lycanthropy? Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 115, 159-161.

Nejad, A.G. & Toofani, K. (2005). Invited comment (on ‘Co-existence of lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome in a single case’). Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111, 250-252.