We know that many people, both young and old, can have PTSD. What many do not realize is that dogs can develop PTSD too. Just like with people, the causes can vary, as can the symptoms. So how can you tell if your dog possibly has PTSD? If they do, what can you do to help them? It isn’t like they can use words to tell you how they are feeling or what they are thinking. Thankfully, there are specific signs you can watch for to decide if your dog has PTSD, and there are treatment options for your four-legged family member!
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder that most people are aware of. It is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.1
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Signs and symptoms of PTSD
When adopting a dog, we know they come to us with a life already part-lived and habits already formed. They have had experiences we were not there for and don’t know anything about. Most dogs are like children—happy, go-lucky, and excitable when they have been well cared for and lived in a well-adjusted environment.
Experiences such as abuse, being subjected to high-stress situations such as a war zone, extreme weather event, being abandoned, or coming from a hoarding situation can cause PTSD in dogs. Sometimes just coming from an unstable environment with a mixture of people needing protecting and people needing protection from can also cause PTSD.
If you have adopted a dog, there are some specific signs which may indicate that your dog has past trauma. These can include cowering at raised voices or hands, timidly approaching when you call their name, and hiding from new people can all be signs that your dog has been through something traumatic. Being startled by loud noises, having an aversion to a particular type of person, or acting out in certain situations can all be symptoms of something bigger going on.
If your and your dog have gone through some recent traumatic event, your dog can develop PTSD. Some symptoms can include: excessive panting, fearfulness, being timid and clinging to you, sudden aggressive behaviors, or depression. Some dogs can become hyper-vigilant or just completely shut down.
You should also remember that dogs are good at masking their symptoms, so you may not start seeing these behaviors until they have been with you for a while. A dog needs time to adjust to their new surroundings. So, you may not notice issues until a dog has been with you for a few weeks or months. As they relax any trauma may start to manifest in unwanted behaviors.
Getting a diagnosis for PTSD in your dog
While PTSD has been studied since the 1980s, scientists often debated the existence of it in dogs and other animals. It wasn’t until around 2010, when military dogs were coming home from Afghanistan that people started taking canine PTSD seriously. In fact, the New York Times wrote one of the first mainstream pieces on the subject in 2011.2
Researchers have only started really investigating the impact of this mental health condition on dogs in the last five years or so. Many people still believe that animals do not suffer as humans
can in relation to mental disorders. But research has shown that dogs can suffer from diseases such as phobias and separation anxiety, so it’s not a stretch to realize that they can suffer from PTSD too.
We don’t really know what dogs dream about and they can’t tell you how they are feeling. So, we have to look closely at their behaviors. If your dog displays any signs of PTSD, start making notes about when the behaviors are displayed, what calmed your dog, and how long it took them to start behaving normally again. You can then take these notes and discuss them with your veterinarian.
It is possible that these new behaviors are caused by an underlying medical condition. So, your vet should give your dog a thorough exam to rule out anything medical or physical.
You may also want to contact a certified dog behavior consultant. If your dog is showing signs of PTSD especially if there is aggression involved, you should seek the help of a dog trainer who has extensive experience in dealing with severe behavioral issues. A trainer who doesn’t have experience dealing with severe behavioral issues may unknowingly make matters worse.
Treatments for PTSD in dogs
Knowing that your furry family member has been through something traumatic enough to them to cause PTSD is heartbreaking. Thankfully, many types of treatments are available to help them overcome the disorder and live out the rest of their days with less stress and anxiety.
While there are medications available, there are many things you can do for your dog that do not involve giving them medication. Depending on the severity of your dog’s symptoms will depend on the treatment.
If your veterinarian feels your dog needs more help than you can do by yourself at home, they may suggest systematic desensitization treatment. This is where your dog is exposed to their triggering stimulus a little at a time. As they overcome their fear of the trigger at a low level, it gradually increases and repeats the process. Systematic desensitization traditionally works in tandem with rewards and positive reinforcement.
In some cases, you dog may need to take prescription medication along with other treatment options. This does not mean your dog will need to stay on the medication forever but, that will be something you and your vet can discuss with time.
The most commonly prescribed medication to treat anxiety and panic disorders in dogs is alprazolam (common brand: Xanax). Other anti-anxiety or anti-depression drugs your vet may give your dog may include diazepam (common brand: Valium), sertraline (common brand: Zoloft), or Fluoxetine (common brand: Prozac).
Non-medical treatments can include keeping a strict daily routine so the dog knows what to expect at all times, exercise and play therapies, and dog pheromone collars and infusers. CBD oil may also be beneficial.
The most important thing when treating your dog for PTSD is to keep communication open with your vet and other specialists working with you, being vigilant to any adverse changes so that you can adjust treatment accordingly.
What you can do at home
Treating your dog for PTSD is a group effort that starts at home. One of the most important things to remember is to remain cheerful and happy when interacting with your dog, especially while they’re in the midst of an episode. By doing this, you are showing them that there is nothing for them to fear, and they are okay.
While most dogs do best with a routine anyway, ensuring that you have a good one in place lets your dog know what to expect and when.
One thing to remember is that when animals are afraid, they can sometimes become aggressive. If this happens, do not show fear or aggression back but rather remain calm and talk to them soothingly. If the trigger that caused the aggressive behavior is visible, try to redirect your dog’s attention.
Once their behavior has calmed, give them positive reinforcement and praise them for calming down. Ensuring that your dog is getting plenty of exercise and playtime will help them spend excess energy. This can help to reduce fear aggression.
Be sure to let your vet know if your dog does start exhibiting these types of behaviors. Above all, continually showing them love and tender care lets them know they are safe with you.
Having a dog with PTSD has its challenges. However, getting them treatment can make a world of difference for both of you. As their treatment progresses and the healing takes place, you will be able to enjoy more activities together. And you will not worry as much about activities triggering into a PTSD episode.
You will have the comfort of knowing that by getting them help, you are possibly extending their lifespan. And potentially decreasing their risk for various health problems. You will enjoy getting to know a more relaxed and joyful version of your pet. And they will appreciate knowing they have found a safe place with you.
The road to recovery may take some time. However, the process can create a strong bond between you and your dog. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will stop trying to get into the trash or chewing on your favorite slipper. But they will most likely be even happier while doing it!REFERENCES
- “What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?” American Psychiatric Association, August 2020.
- James Dao, “After Duty, Dogs Suffer Like Soldiers,” New York Times, December 1, 2011, nytimes.com.