Many human suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event or exposure to repetitive stress. PTSD is often associated with soldiers who have gone to war or are victims of natural disasters or abuse. But have you wondered if rescued dogs can also suffer from PTSD? We know that dogs can also be exposed to extreme stress or trauma, so it is an important question to ask.
The answer is, yes, dogs can suffer from PTSD. Recent research has shown that dogs do maintain emotional scars from past trauma and stress. But the good news is that dogs, like humans, can be healed and do recover from past trauma. Time, love, kindness, and new positive memories can eventually make a huge difference for a traumatized dog.
What is PTSD and How Does it Impact Dogs?
Like humans, dogs have memories of past events. We often associate these traumatic experiences with soldiers who have been in horrific wars or battles. We also find PTSD prevalent among victims of natural disasters, accidents or sexual abuse. Recent research has shown that if a dog has traumatic experiences or repetitive stress over a long period of time, he can develop an emotional disorder now known as C-PTSD. Katie Sicking wrote in an article for Barkpost.com that recent research showed that dogs do, in fact, get PTSD. She wrote, “C-PTSD is a class of anxiety disorder that affects dogs who have experienced one or more stressful events such as surviving a life-threatening event, abuse, or combat situations.”
The Mayo Clinic defines human PTSD on it’s website as, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”
We know that dogs have memories of past experiences even though they may process them differently than humans. So, it would make sense that certain current situations or triggers may remind them of something in a past situation. It is not clear if dogs have actual flashbacks or specific memories, but they do have very strong associations. Certain sounds, tone of voice, objects, or rooms may bring back latent memories of an abusive or frightening past event. I wrote an article about how dogs remember their past. You can click here to read more about this topic.
Events that Can Cause PTSD
Situations that can cause PTSD for both dogs and humans are:
- Fighting or being on the frontlines of battle during a war
- Witnessing or being a victim of a natural disaster such as a flood, fire, hurricane, or tornado
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Physical attacks by people or animals
Dogs who are abandoned in the wild to fend for themselves often struggle with PTSD. This is especially true if they have been alone and fighting for survival for a long period of time. Likewise, dogs who have been neglected, abused, or forced to fight with other dogs will almost always have some form of PTSD.
What Are the Symptoms?
Dogs who have PTSD have a variety of ways they make express their fears. Some of the symptoms may overlap with other syndromes such as separation anxiety. But separation anxiety can, in some cases, stem from PTSD. So, it is essential to get some advice from a vet or a certified dog trainer. Here is a short list of symptoms to watch for:
- Hiding in the corner of the room or under furniture for no apparent reason
- Shaking and trembling at sounds or new people
- Excessive barking, howling or whining
- Destructive behavior when left alone
- Clinging to you and acting fearful
- Always checking out their surroundings in an anxious way
- Low energy that may look like depression
- Tail tucked a lot or ears pinned back
- Panting a lot especially when any new people or activity is introduced
- Overly aggressive or shy toward people or other dogs
- Afraid of men or children
- Peeing when greeted by you
Traumatized dogs may also have very active dreams or nightmares. They may twitch, move their feet rapidly as if trying to run or make muffled sounds. Most likely, they are trying to process past experiences. For more information about this see my post, How to Know if Your New Rescue Dog is Having Nightmares.
Dogs can’t verbally express what they are afraid of, but they can act out their fears with various behaviors. They may react to anything that reminds them of past trauma. If your dog seems to exhibit some of the above behaviors after adoption, have a vet do a thorough examination to rule out medical problems. Then consider seeing a vet who specializes in behavioral and emotional problems or a certified dog trainer. They will be able to help you re-condition and reassure your dog.
Dogs Who Are Trained to Rescue People Can Also Suffer from PTSD
According to the American Kennel Club 5% of working dogs return from military war zones with PTSD. As with soldiers, military working dogs are exposed to the loud noises of bombs and guns and destruction of life and property. Many dogs do recover and return to their military work, but some need to be retired and placed with a loving family.
Some dogs return home from war zones like Afghanistan totally broken due to their horrific experiences They require both medical and behavioral treatment to help them rebalance and regain a healthy emotional life. But these dogs may not be able to return to their military duties.
This can also be true for dogs who work with as part of disaster recue teams to locate victims of natural disasters. Working rescue dogs are trained to sniff out human life so human workers can find and extract people from collapsed or flooded buildings. This can be very stressful for both humans and canines alike. In some cases, dogs have also been the victims of a disaster and will develop PTSD as a result.
How Can PTSD in Dogs be Cured?
The first step to curing PTSD in the wonderful dog you have rescued and brought home with you is to schedule a veterinarian appointment. Your vet will be able to rule out or resolve medical conditions that may cause some of the symptoms or be a result of past neglect/abuse. Next, your vet may prescribe certain medications such as Xanax or Prozac to help calm your pup so he can relax. There are many other many medications as well that can help with fear and anxiety.
It will be important to work with your vet over a period of time to determine the best course of action. And, a dog may display more symptoms as time goes on. So, don’t give up too quickly. Be patient and stay in close touch with your vet during the first several months following adoption. Your vet may also refer you to a behavioral specialist or a certified dog trainer who can assist with behavior modification.
The most important thing to remember is that it will take time to help a dog recover from a traumatic past. But dogs can heal! New positive memories will eventually replace the old. Even though a dog may never completely forget his past, he can make huge progress toward healing old wounds. Be sure to see my post How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog.
Your dog will eventually let go of frightening triggers which linked him to his past. He will begin to feel relaxed, content, and happy after a sustained period of living in a new, loving home. New memories will replace the old ones with positive and pleasant experiences. Nothing is more healing than love!
Just be sure that you don’t give up too soon! Some dogs who have had several years of stress or trauma may need two or three years to recover. It will take some work and a lot of TLC, but you can truly help a traumatized dog have a joyful life!
And good for you for being willing to adopt a dog who truly needs your love and support!