Do Pets Show Post-Traumatic Stress?

  • Article by: JEANNINE MOGA , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: June 19, 2008 - 3:22 PM

Whether you are an animal lover who has intervened in disaster response or given a shelter critter a fresh start, chances are good that you have encountered a trauma survivor.

There are traumatic events that are known - Hurricane Katrina, for example, immediately comes to mind - that alter the lives of the humans and animals that survive them. Then there are events that are unknown - the painful mysteries that follow untold numbers of animals into shelters and streets every year. Whether you are an animal lover who has intervened in disaster response or given a shelter critter a fresh start, chances are good that you have encountered a trauma survivor.

De-mystifying trauma

The term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), commonly used in reference to the effects of witnessing battle, is an anxiety disorder that sometimes results from exposure to events that are unpredictable, uncontrollable and potentially life-threatening. People with PTSD experience a number of difficult symptoms, including hypersensitivity to the world around them, a persistent need to avoid reminders of the traumatic event, flashbacks or "intrusive" thoughts and physical markers of heightened anxiety (such as a racing heart rate, increased blood pressure and sweaty palms). While some may think that PTSD is an experience reserved only for humans, researchers have discovered that non-human animals may also develop signs of post-traumatic stress.

From war to wolves

Wild wolves relocated to captivity, as well as captive primates, have been shown to manifest behaviors eerily similar to the markers of PTSD. And "trauma" does not necessarily imply that physical injury has occurred. In fact, some folks (like veterinarian Temple Grandin) suggest that emotional terror is far more damaging to animal well-being than physical injury. In any case, feeling intensely threatened on a primal level is enough to change the way our mammalian brains function, all the way down to the synapses. These neural shifts, however subtle, can make it difficult for critters that have been terrorized to trust their caregivers or to cope with even the most benign noises and activities of daily life.

What to watch for

Not all survivors will develop behavioral problems. While we don't fully understand what makes one animal more resilient than another, we do know that some animals can come through horrific events without significant long-term effects. Others, however, may reveal behavioral problems over time, even when they look healthy and vibrant on the outside.

Signs of possible trauma include:

• An exaggerated startle response to everyday noises, even after regular exposure to those noises (pots, doors, cars and even flushing toilets may be scary enough to cause flinching, crouching or fleeing).

• Avoidance of caregivers, certain spaces/situations or objects that represent the trauma.

• Empty, repetitive behavior (such as pacing).

• Impulsive, aggressive behaviors toward animals or humans.

• Hyper-vigilance (being "on-guard" at all times) and difficulty relaxing or sleeping.

• Poor memory, inhibited learning and difficulty adapting to new situations.

Hope and healing for traumatized animals

Trauma cannot always be healed, and animals that have experienced terror often need more than love and training to bounce back. The most effective and humane approach to treating trauma focuses on building confidence and a sense of mastery - both of which are required in emotionally healthy humans and animals. The combination of a calm, highly structured home environment and reward-based behavioral training provides the highly predictable and supportive environment necessary to soothe and build confidence in hyper-vigilant critters.

Depending on your animal's unique needs, medication may also be necessary to manage the symptoms of anxiety and to help the brain accept new learning, thus re-programming the neural pathways altered by trauma. If you or someone you know is caring for a trauma survivor, consulting a behaviorist is a great place to start for treatment plans that integrate structured learning, positive reinforcement and medication.

Because surviving a traumatic event alters the body's ability to relax, body-centered methods of handling and training (such as Tellington Touch) can help you build a trusting relationship with your animal. It is also a good tool to remind your pet of what it feels like to be calm and safe in his or her body. For more information on TTouch training and certified TTouch professionals near you, consult www.ttouch.com.

Ultimately, those of us who rescue animals do so with the intention of healing harm and giving them every chance of living healthy, happy lives. Finding a way to support the entire animal - in body, mind and spirit - is not only good for them, but is good for us, too.

Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LICSW is a social worker and human-animal bond specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, and an editorial advisory board member for Star Tribune Pet Central. www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc/aboutvmc/clientsupport.html

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