Can Dogs and Cats Have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

April 14, 2011

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 To make matters worse, an owner who fails to understand why their pet has suddenly withdrawn from them or is showing signs of aggression may do the worst thing for the pet and just abandon him or surrender him to a shelter.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.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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  1. Mayonesse says:

    I believe one of my cats may have ptsd, when i found them, they were in very poor conditions and with bruises, while one of them reacted just fine with being cared, the other didn’t reacted as well, he would be scared of us and agressive when we tried to pet him. This lasted over a month, when finally he understood that we weren’t going to hurt him, now he’s more calm (even though some times he runs away from us scared) and a totally different cat.

  2. Kal says:

    I found one of my cats on the street practically skin and bones. Adopted him and fed him and he ate so much that he quickly became overweight. Tried to limit his food to help him lost weight and he went into full panic mode. He swallowed his food without chewing, started hunting and eating crickets, and never stopped begging for more food. He would also hide behind the couch whenever we opened a door to the outside. We finally decided to let him be overweight and happy.
    I believe animals can have PTSD.

  3. KATHEE says:

    I found my cat in a wheelie bin when he was not even 6 weeks old. He’s been aggressive, noisy and very demanding. Seven years on, he is still very vocal and very demanding. I have found that catnip has helped very much. He’s more relaxed and accepting of things. Have I done the right thing?

  4. Christy Willingham says:

    My cat was stuck in the dryer for 10 mins, by accident of course. I rushed her to the vet and was on iv for 2 days. I brought her home yesterday and her behavior is so different. She’s scared, cannot relax and has her tail between her legs. The doc said her tail isn’t broken. How do I make her feel safe in her home again?

  5. Wow!!! What a great article 🙂 🙂 I just got my cat back from my mom. He is three and she had him for two years. He was just a kitten and she would yell and scream at him, treat him very mean while she cradled her other cat. Now I have him, and he is so scared of every little noise I make, if he hears the neighbor yell, or slam the door, he will freak out and get into Paranoid mode, where he sits in front of the door for hours, so that he's prepared for fear when it comes thru the door. I'm so glad u wrote this post!! Thank u SOOOOOO much!!!