PTSD In Dogs
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that affects many humans who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. But can our canine companions also suffer from PTSD? Dogs are highly perceptive animals that can experience emotional distress, and their exposure to traumatic events can have lasting effects on their well-being. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of PTSD in dogs, its potential causes, symptoms, and how we can help our four-legged friends cope with trauma.
Is Canine PTSD similar to human PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in dogs shares similarities with the condition observed in humans. It is a complex psychological response that occurs after a dog experiences or witnesses a terrifying or life-threatening event.
Such events may include:
- Natural disasters
- Physical abuse
- Combat situations
Dogs, like humans, have memory recall, emotional responses, and neural pathways that can be affected by trauma, leading to long-lasting psychological consequences.
Symptoms To Look Out For
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of PTSD in dogs is crucial for early intervention and support. While dogs cannot verbally communicate their distress, they exhibit behavioural and physiological changes that may indicate trauma:
- Hypervigilance: Constant alertness, scanning the environment for potential threats.
- Aggression or fearfulness: Increased aggression or fear towards specific triggers or situations.
- Avoidance: Attempting to escape or avoid situations reminiscent of the traumatic event.
- Excessive barking or vocalization: Frequent and intense vocalization out of fear or anxiet
- Startle response: Exhibiting heightened sensitivity to sudden noises or movements.
- Changes in appetite or sleep patterns: Loss of appetite, weight loss, insomnia, or excessive sleeping.
- Withdrawal or depression: Loss of interest in activities, decreased interaction, or depressed behaviour.
- .Flashbacks or re-experiencing: Displaying signs of reliving the traumatic event, such as freezing or hiding
It is important to note that these symptoms can also be indicative of other underlying medical or behavioural conditions. Consulting with a vet is crucial for accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plans.
Treatment and Support
Helping a traumatized dog recover from PTSD requires an approach that combines patience, and understanding.
Here are some strategies that can aid in the recovery process:
- Vet evaluation: Rule out any underlying medical conditions and ensure the dog’s overall health.
- Behavioural modification techniques: Enlist the help of a qualified animal behaviourist to develop a customized training plan.
- Counter-conditioning: Gradual exposure to triggers in a controlled and positive manner to change the dog’s response.
- Medication: In severe cases, veterinarians may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to assist with symptom management.
- A safe and structured environment: Providing a secure and predictable living space can help reduce anxiety.
- Physical and mental stimulation: Engage the dog in activities like exercise, puzzle toys, and obedience training to redirect their focus and build confidence.
- Patience and consistency: Understand that recovery takes time, and progress may be slow. Consistency in training and emotional support is essential.
My Own Experience With A Dog Suffering From PTSD
We adopted Darcy, a miniature Dachshund back in 2015. He had been used as a stud dog but when he started refusing to comply, the owner took him to the vets to be euthanised. Luckily, the vet had a big heart and instead of putting Darcy to sleep, he contacted a dog rescue. In the following weeks Darcy went to live with several different foster families. Unfortunately by this time he was displaying fear aggression. He snapped at several people and hurt a cat, making him difficult to rehome and he was moved around constantly.
At this time Darcy was estimated to be two years old. He had been given a name but showed no sign of recognising it. I had owned Dachshunds in the past, I knew their temperament could be difficult, but underneath the bravado, there is usually an incredibly loyal, loving and sweet dog.
When Darcy came to stay it became clear that he had many, many issues, all created from extreme fear and mistrust.
He protected himself, and his belongings to the extent that he would bite without warning whenever he felt threatened.
He became fixated on reflections, displayed severe separation anxiety and would bark at the slightest sound.
For some reason he was terrified of the vacuum cleaner, mop and yard brush and would attack them when in use.
However, he was totally respectful of my other dogs, loved nothing more than a cuddle, was housetrained and seemed very willing to accept us as his new family.
Now, many years on, we have learned to adjust to Darcy’s insecurities. We know that the introduction of a new toy will trigger resource guarding. Strangers have to be warned that he is unpredictable and can’t be stroked. His barking has reduced, but some days he is hyper focused and barks at anything and everything.
He isn’t a perfect dog, and never will be. His PTSD is too deep rooted. However, he is contented, settled and has bought us so much happiness. He adores a blanket to bury himself under, the warmth of the sun on his face and plenty of tasty treats. Darcy loves to cuddle up with his favourite people, to chase squirrels and to snooze in a comfortable, warm bed.
There was no magic wand for Darcy, but here are a few things which have helped to reduce his severe anxiety.
- Take things very slowly and be extremely proud of every tiny step in the journey.
- Don’t expect a dog with PTSD to ever be ‘cured’, vast improvements can be made but symptoms can resurface at any time.
- Invest in a Thundershirt to provide security at times when you know he will be stressed.
- Darcy thrives on routine. Knowing what happens next in his day alleviates anxiety.
- A confident canine companion of a similar size will provide confidence and security.
- Remove triggers (in Darcy’s case squeaky toys) to prevent heightened anxiety levels.
- Provide consistent, calm and reassuring training. If your dog doesn’t react well, just try again on a different day.
- Never raise your voice, this behaviour is related to fear and shouting will only escalate it.
- Be flexible. You might have to adjust your lifestyle to accommodate a dog suffering from PTSD. However, the reward when the dog begins to show trust is well worth any sacrifices.
- Use distraction techniques when your dog’s anxiety level is high. A Kong toy filled with a tasty treat will help to distract his mind.
- A few drops of Rescue Remedy in drinking water can help on days when Darcy is particularly stressed.
- Consult a dog behaviourist if needed. Sometimes an expert can put a different perspective on a problem you previously thought was insurmountable.
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I hope this information is helpful. Please comment below to tell us about experiences with PTSD in dogs and steps you have taken to overcome it.