By Linda Cole
Search and rescue dogs, police dogs and military dogs are by their handler’s side through some of the worst conditions nature and man can create. We don’t think of dogs as having the same sort of reactions to conditions that can affect a person, but dogs in war zones or those who work in difficult surroundings can have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), just like a person. However, these aren’t the only conditions that can cause a dog to experience this anxiety disorder.
Dogs have been going into war zones with humans for centuries. They’ve been used to run messages, search out the enemy, warn of intruders, guard prisoners and, in recent warfare, sniff out hidden explosives. Military dogs aren’t prepared for the real conditions of war. They may have experienced gunfire with their handler during training, but exploding bombs and battlefield conditions aren’t felt until a dog gets to the war zone. The same sights, smells and trauma experienced by soldiers are also felt by dogs, and it can cause a well balanced and happy dog to withdraw as anxiety overtakes him.
PTSD also affects dogs and cats that have gone through the traumatic and stressful aftermath of natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or an abusive home. A severe thunderstorm or fireworks display can also cause a pet to become overwhelmed by anxiety. A dog that was attacked by another dog or wild animal can show signs of anxiety. To make matters worse, an owner who fails to understand why their pet has suddenly withdrawn from them or is showing signs of aggression may do the worst thing for the pet and just abandon him or surrender him to a shelter.
If you rescue a dog or cat from a shelter or from the street, many times the pet’s full history is never known. These pets can have stress-related symptoms that could be PTSD which was never treated.
A pet that has a change in behavior should be evaluated by a vet to make sure there’s no medical reason for the change, but if a traumatic event was experienced by the dog or cat, his behavior could be affected. Signs of anxiety include: withdrawing from people (especially from the ones the pet knows) signs of fear, shaking, hiding, peeing on a bed, couch or when someone greets them, howling, excessive barking or meowing, easily spooked, pacing, excessive panting, bad dreams, teeth grinding. The pet may also avoid things, places or people who remind them of the stressful event, or act in an aggressive manner even though they’ve never been aggressive in the past.
Pets are just like people and react in different ways to stressful events. Some can go through a catastrophic situation and come out untouched, but for the ones who have trouble dealing with their anxiety, it’s important to understand what they went through and how it affected them. Conditions that cause anxiety leave pets with a sense of not being in control, which leads to fear.
Treating a dog or cat with severe PTSD should be done under the supervision of a professional. An animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist can make an accurate evaluation to determine the best course of action to take. Treating PTSD can be a long road to recovery, and it could require medication and desensitizing the dog to change his fearful behavior.
Mild to moderate anxiety can be treated by providing a quiet retreat for your pet with a favorite toy and familiar scents that are comforting to him. Create and stick to a routine and give lots of positive reinforcement and understanding. Please read “The Best Way to Help a Scared Dog or Cat” for more tips on helping an anxious pet.
PTSD isn’t a disease – it’s a behavior change that can be corrected once the pet has been properly diagnosed. Traumatic events can be overwhelming for some pets, and it’s important for us to take their reaction seriously so we can help them when they most need us to be understanding and patient. That’s the best way to help them recover.
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