Recently I saw an emotionally moving video of firefighters rescuing cats from burning buildings. In the footage, the terror on the faces of those cats was obvious, and their fear was palpable. It made me wonder, how did they recover after they were rescued? Were they ever the same?
Can our pets suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like humans can?
What Exactly is PTSD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is defined as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”
In order to definitively diagnose a human being as suffering from PTSD, the person must meet the following criteria:
- Experience a traumatic event.
- Re-experiencing of the event through flashbacks or nightmares.
- Avoidance of distressing, trauma-related reminders (people, places, or objects) after the event.
- Hyperarousal (aggressive or unusual behavior, exaggerated startle response).
- Duration of symptoms lasting at least 1 month.
- Significant impairment of normal functioning.
PTSD has been well-documented in military personnel, police officers, firefighters, and first-responder medical emergency teams for years. But what about in pets?
Animals and PTSD
PTSD in dogs was first diagnosed in military and service dogs in 2009. According to Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., Chief of Behavioral Medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, up to 10 percent of the 650 military dogs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have developed canine PTSD. Of those, about half will probably be retired from service.
Recently, it’s been found that traumatic experiences can also cause household pets like dogs and cats to develop PTSD. (Some veterinarians believe it also exists in horses, to which I can personally attest after working closely with an abused horse). However, animal behaviorists are hesitant to conclusively state this, because they have been unable to prove scientifically that these animals have 2 of the defining criteria for PTSD: 1) Intrusive, repetitive thoughts about the trauma, and 2) nightmares related to the event.
Although we may never be able to know for sure how a pet feels or what they are thinking, we can certainly observe their behavior. Are they listless or withdrawn? Showing a loss of interest in playing or activities they used to enjoy? Have they lost their appetite, or are they agitated, anxious or restless? These are clinical signs of depression in people – so why is it so hard to accept that pets can also suffer from depression and/or PTSD?
And we know that animals do, in fact, dream…so accepting that some of those dreams may be nightmares certainly wouldn’t be much of a stretch.
Causes of PTSD in Pets
Any traumatic event can impact a pet’s psychological health. These can include abuse, abandonment, loss of a guardian, being housed in a physically stressful or horrific environment (such as a puppy mill), having survived a life-threatening disaster like a house fire or hurricane, being struck by a car, being attacked by another animal or predator, or being forced to survive a torturous existence like the dogs in dog fighting kennels.
These all cause psychological scars that can lead to the formation of PTSD, which may manifest months, even years, after the traumatic event.
Sadly, even some dogs and cats that have lived for long periods of time in shelter environments have been shown to exhibit PTSD symptoms. It’s important to keep in mind that the symptoms seen in shelter pets are not necessarily caused by being housed long-term, but more likely by traumatic events suffered before being admitted to the shelter.
These symptoms may not appear while the dog or cat is in the shelter (so the shelter or rescue group may not be aware of the condition), but may appear a few weeks after the rescued pet has settled into their new home. This can create a tragic cycle wherein the adoptive parent returns the pet to the shelter because they are unaware of why the pet is displaying the behavior, which can lead to further trauma and make the pet’s PTSD symptoms worse.
Symptoms in Pets
PTSD symptoms in pets can include:
- Uncharacteristic aggressiveness
- Fearfulness, trembling
- Increased agitation
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Reduced interest in playing, going for walks, or interacting with other pets and/or people
- Hypervigilance (an intense, “on guard” awareness of surroundings)
- Tendency to be easily startled
- Urinating or defecating inside (when previously housebroken)
- Increased neediness or attachment
- Unprovoked whining or crying
- Excessive barking or meowing
- Destructive behavior
- Extreme escape behavior to avoid a stressor (such as chewing through drywall to attempt to flee during a thunderstorm)
- Sudden changes in temperament
- Hiding for no reason
- Excessive panting
- Fear of being alone
- Sleep disturbances
- Avoidance of people, places, or things associated with a traumatic event
Treatment of PTSD in Pets
So can pets with PTSD be successfully treated?
Fortunately, the short answer is yes. However, treatment for any pet that suffers from PTSD can be challenging, and depends on the individual patient.
Military or service dogs are treated with time off from work, desensitization training, and drug therapy (clomipramine, fluoxetine and amitriptyline are most commonly used).
Pets such as dogs, cats, and horses can be treated with a combination of these techniques:
- Drug therapy.
- Exercise and play therapy (especially for dogs – those who have the opportunity to run, swim, or go through an agility course with their guardians seem to recover more quickly).
- Desensitization (this should only be done under the guidance of a trained animal behaviorist with experience in treating PTSD in pets).
- Providing mental exercise (through game toys, puzzle feeders, or obedience and trick training).
- Creating a safe, quiet place where the pet can get away from other pets and people.
- The use of supplements such as Omega 3 fatty acids, L-theanine, and melatonin, along with certain pheromones believed to help relieve stress.
- Alternative treatments such as acupuncture.
If your pet is experiencing behavioral issues, you should first consult your veterinarian. If your pet is truly suffering from PTSD, your vet can refer you to a certified animal behaviorist, who can talk with you about your pet’s history and assess his condition. The behaviorist can then decide which behavior modifications (such as counter-conditioning, basic training, or exercises that you are able to do at home) are best for your pet.
Can PTSD in Pets Be Cured?
PTSD is not a disease; rather, it’s a behavioral change that can be corrected once a pet has been properly diagnosed.
In many cases, treated pets seem to return to normal, but for some, their condition must be managed over the course of their lifetime. According to Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, Director of Animal Behavior at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, the solution is more “management”, he says. “Dogs never forget.”
Many pets can go through tragic and traumatic events and emerge unscathed, but for those who have trouble dealing with the anxiety caused by their trauma, it’s important to understand how deeply their fear and anxiety can affect them. Patience and understanding is key, and it’s the best and most effective way to help them recover.
Have you ever had a pet that you suspect suffered from PTSD? If so, how did you deal with it? Please share your story with us in the comments below!