BY LUCIE WINBORNE, FREELANCE WRITER
Trauma isn’t limited to humans. Whether a result of abuse, abandonment, neglect, an accident or a natural disaster, both physical and mental scars can be visible for years. But do animals also suffer from what we call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD? “Absolutely,” says leading veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. “It is a real, now-recognized entity, even by the US Army.”
What Is It?
Described as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened,” PTSD has long been documented in professions such as police work, firefighting and the military. But the underlying factor in all cases is stress. Even events such as a long stay at a kennel or veterinarian’s office can produce a lasting negative effect. And as with people, not all dogs will experience or manifest stress in the same way—some are more sensitive than others.
The condition may also be much more common than we’d expect. While it’s been estimated that about 5 percent of military dogs will develop the condition, Manhattan dog trainer and novelist Lee Charles Kelley notes on his website, "I think that given the number of pet dogs abandoned or placed in shelters, injured in fights with other dogs, and the number who've been mistreated by their owners or mishandled by their trainers, groomers or vet techs, not to mention those who've been hit by a car, gotten lost, were fought over during a divorce, etc., I'd be very surprised if the number of dogs who've experienced some type of trauma wasn’t at least 70 percent.”
The most common form of PTSD seen in canines is acute with symptoms occurring immediately and usually subsiding within several months. Chronic post-traumatic stress disorder also displays within a short time, but symptoms will be present for longer periods, while delayed onset PTSD will show up more than six months after the triggering incident, sometimes as an increase in originally mild symptoms.
What Does It Look Like?
In humans, typical symptoms of PTSD are recurring thoughts and memories of a traumatizing event. The same can be assumed for dogs, but as they are obviously unable to articulate these experiences, cues to watch for include barking, hiding, hypervigilance, avoidance of familiar areas, trembling, rapid breathing and shying away from people.
John Pietruszka, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth who fosters dogs with his wife Julie, describes how one dog “came to us in shell shock.”
“She had spent all her life in neglect outdoors . . . Apparently she had been chained or kept in a kennel, for she actually chewed down her front teeth trying to escape the hell she had been placed in. For three weeks I didn’t hear a bark, and yet once she became comfortable in our home, she took to guarding the place just as our own dogs do.”
Pietruszka adds that even nighttime trips outside were a “revelation,” as the emotionally damaged canine “just stood at the bottom of the stairs, afraid to move because she was unfamiliar with the territory.”
If you suspect your dog suffers from PTSD, start with a thorough checkup to rule out any physical causes. If none are found, your vet should examine your pet’s history for evidence of traumatic events, though these may be difficult to determine. Your vet can recommend additional resources such as diagnostic testing, specialized training with a canine behaviorist or medication.
Can PTSD Be Cured?
Lee Charles Kelley categorizes trauma on three levels: bruised, wounded and injured.
“Emotional bruises often heal on their own,” he says. “Wounds, which may be analogous to a broken bone, take more time and effort. And injuries, which are analogous to a severed limb, are much more difficult to deal with. So in the latter case, some dogs are able to function within certain comfortable parameters, but can't be trusted around other dogs, strangers, etc.”
In combination with retraining, here are some important elements of rehabilitation.
• A safe haven. Whether it be a room or crate, give your dog his own private space, making sure to include his favorite toys, food bowl, and other articles (such as an article of your clothing) that will provide comfortable familiarity.
• Routine. Order is the rule here. Feeding and walking should be done on a consistent schedule.
• Play and exercise. Like mentally healthy animals, traumatized dogs need fun! Plus, they have been shown to recover more quickly when this need is satisfied. But be sure they remain aware it’s just a game, since if things start getting too serious, your dog’s behavioral switch will flip from play to aggression.
• A quality diet. Though of course any loving owner will want to feed their pet the best- quality food possible, a supplement of Omega 3 fatty acids will boost depression-fighting hormones.
• Medicine. On the holistic front, Chinese herbs and even acupuncture have been successfully used in the treatment of anxiety and aggression. Other options include pheromone collars and flower essence products like Bach’s Rescue Remedy. More traditional methods include alprazolam (Xanax) and fluoxetine (Prozac).
Anyone who has ever loved a dog in distress wants to know—is there hope? Can this pet be saved?
The good news is yes they can be saved, but owners must also understand that the process will take time, in some cases even a lifetime, in which case the process comes down to “management” as these animals won’t have the same ability to learn new behaviors or control their impulses as a normal dog. And since, as Dr. Dodman notes, “there is no cognitive therapy for pets,” more than a good trainer is needed: “A knowledgeable, up-to-date veterinarian who will prescribe palliative medications is pretty much a necessary component of recovery.”