Although only officially diagnosed in military dogs returning from deployment and having been subject to combat and prolonged or repeated deployment, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may also affect household pets.
Cats and dogs, like people, have individual minds and personalities. When they experience a traumatic event or prolonged exposure to stressful circumstances, they become susceptible to the condition. The causes, signs and symptoms of PTSD in animals are similar to those present in people.
Household Pets at Risk: Causes of PTSD in Family Pets
Like humans, animals react and respond differently in any given situation – some are better able to cope under stress than others are. Animals, in general, have a much stronger survival instinct than humans, which may add to the stress in some situations rather than alleviate it.
Aside from the traumas of war, which, unlike military and police dogs, household pets are not subjected to, the stresses of day-to-day life for some animals may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For example:
- Homelessness – without protection from the outside world, homeless or feral animals are at risk of PTSD, especially when they are often without food, shelter or companionship and are forced to live under harmful conditions.
- Abuse and Neglect – frequent abuse, whether from birth or later in life, causes a lack of trust and increased fear. Neglect also contributes to PTSD symptoms. For example, a cat whose litter box is never changed and fills with maggots may become overly fearful and avoidant of using the litter box, even when it is kept clean. A dog that has been left outdoors tied up on a chain and forgotten about repeatedly every time it needs to relieve itself may refuse to go to the bathroom outdoors or be fearful of being put on a leash.
- Domestic Violence – witnessing violence and abuse between spouses or children increases anxiety and fear, even if it is not directed at the animal. This also includes witnessing such things as murder and other violent situations as witnessed by police dogs.
- Abandonment – abandonment can have a serious affect on an animal. Most times they adjust to their new home, however they may have continuous fears of abandonment by the new family. This is especially the case when an animal has made attachments and been abandoned multiple times.
- Shelter Living – repeated trips to the shelter or long-term stays at the humane society often have a negative effect on cats and dogs. They may become overly fearful of sleeping in a kennel or other enclosed place.
- Accident or Injury – an animal that has had a serious injury or that has been hit by a car may be fearful of car rides, car noises, going outdoors or of being injured again.
Living situations and life events alone are not necessarily indicative of PTSD. The animal’s individual personality, age, temperament and over-all well-being, combined with the severity of circumstances, determine how the pet will cope. In some instances, the animal will be unable to cope and develop moderate to severe Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Canine and Feline Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Although cats dogs express themselves differently than humans, many of the signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are surprisingly similar. Cats and dogs, like people, occasionally feel sad, have bad dreams, remember unpleasant memories, get scared and avoid undesirable situations.
On a low scale, these symptoms are normal responses to negative circumstances. However, when they are ongoing, long-term and cause significant distress to the animal or impair its ability to live day-to-day, the animal may be experiencing PTSD. Canine and feline PTSD signs and symptoms occur simultaneously and include:
- Hypervigilance – the animal is overly watchful, alert and cautious even when there is no need to be. It reacts strongly to the smallest stimuli and the animal may not sleep well as a result.
- Nightmares – reoccurring dreams disturb the animal’s sleep, keeping it awake at night. The animal may not wake on its own from the dreams and need some help. When the animal wakes, it is obviously fearful.
- Aggression and Irritability – irritability and aggression increases without provocation.
- Hiding and Cowering – the animal cowers with its ears down and tail between its legs. It hides under furniture or behind objects, refusing to come out.
- Avoidance – avoiding people, places or objects is common in animals with PTSD. They go out of their way to avoid reminders of the trauma, often refusing to walk or move.
- Hallucinations or Flashbacks – like nightmares, the animal has hallucinations or flashbacks of events during the day rather than when sleeping. Sudden flashbacks result in the animal responding in much the same way as it did during the original experience. However, it may respond with more aggression or avoidance then it did previously.
- Easily Spooked – the slightest noises or movement easily startle the animal, resulting in an overreaction.
- Overly Dependent – the animal becomes clingy and dependent, unable or unwilling to be alone for any amount of time.
- Lack of Interest – cat and dog toys, food, treats, interaction and other activities no longer interest the animal. This often results in lethargic activities or appearance and weight loss if the animal refuses to eat.
It is important to understand that some animal breeds and individual personalities possess these characteristics naturally. However, when a combination of these behaviors occurs out of the ordinary and after a traumatic event, there is cause for concern.
Help for the Family Pet Suffering from PTSD
Prevention is the best method for dealing with pet post traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Family pets expressing signs and symptoms of PTSD first need an evaluation by a qualified veterinarian to rule out medical conditions.
Be patient with the animal and try to avoid anything that triggers the PTSD symptoms. Provide a quiet and calm atmosphere and allow the family pet to sleep or remain near you. In time, the pet may benefit from safe exposure to the fearful circumstances; however this is best accomplished by an expert. In some cases, it may be necessary to consult with a pet psychiatry expert.
Pets quickly become part of the family, whether raised from birth or adopted later in life. It is not always possible to provide the exact environment a PTSD animal needs. It is far better for the animal to live in a home where it can adjust, feel safe and recover than to remain in an environment where it is fearful and the family is unable to cope with the animal’s behaviors.