Usually, when we come across the words “PTSD” and “dogs” in the same sentence, it’s in reference to therapy dogs trained to help humans with post-traumatic stress disorder. But we’ve learned over the last 10 years or so that canine companions can also suffer from PTSD. In fact, roughly 5% to 17% of dogs are affected, according to Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences (CVMBS).
Causes and Symptoms of Canine PTSD
Because furry family members can develop psychological conditions just as we do, it’s beneficial for every pet parent to be aware of canine PTSD, its potential causes and symptoms, and how to best manage the condition to preserve a dog’s health and quality of life.
Although many people still think of PTSD as related only to veterans returning from war, the fact is that any of life’s traumas can lead to PTSD in both humans and animals. Potential causes of PTSD in dogs include:
- Military or police work
- Severe abuse
- Being a bait or fighting dog
- Living as a stray after being abandoned
- Being raised in a puppy mill
- Being attacked by other dogs or animals
- Trauma from a disaster (flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, explosion)
- Automobile accidents
- ICU experiences (being ventilated, undergoing surgery while conscious or semi-conscious)
Symptoms of canine PTSD are similar to those in humans and include:
- Chronic anxiety
- Sleep disturbances
- Fear of being alone
- Avoidance of certain people, places or situations
- Decreased interest in a favorite activity
According to Dr. Lori Teller, an associate professor at the CVMBS, signs of post-traumatic stress are not always apparent during the adoption process, because some dogs hide their symptoms as a survival mechanism. It isn’t until they acclimate to their new home that symptoms begin to appear, depending on each dog’s trigger(s).
Family Dog Shot by Police Officer Develops PTSD
According to a recounting of the incident in Veterinary Practice News,4 it involved a dog (a family pet, not a K9) who decided to follow a police officer in pursuit of a suspect. The dog’s interest was piqued by the excitement of the foot chase. Unfortunately, the officer misread his excitement as aggression and shot the animal, thinking he was about to attack him.
The dog fell to the ground, bleeding from his wounds, and was close to death. His owner scooped him up and raced him to a nearby animal hospital, where the veterinary staff was able to save him.
The dog slowly recovered physically from his wounds, but his behavior was forever changed. Normally sensitive but relatively confident, the dog became very anxious and hypervigilant. He never took his eyes off his owner and had to be near him every minute.
The dog also developed an extreme fear of police cars, flashing lights, and black people (the police officer who shot him happened to be black). He had what appeared to be nightmares and developed nocturnal separation anxiety so pronounced the owner and his son had to take turns staying up with the dog so the other one could sleep.
Even though there was no way to determine exactly what was going on inside the poor dog, his behavior met the primary criteria for human PTSD, including anxiety lasting more than three months, hyper-vigilance, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares.
Abandoned Dogs in Fukushima
A study published recently in the journal Scientific Reports documents the condition of dogs unintentionally abandoned after the March 2011 earthquake and major nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan.
Many of the dogs had been roaming the streets or were chained and left alone for long periods. Others had been living in a semi-feral state in the exclusion zone near the nuclear reactor. These animals endured not only a complete change in their living conditions, but also separation from their human families.
Researchers compared behavior and urinary cortisol levels of the Fukushima dogs and dogs who had been abandoned, but not under disaster conditions.
Study authors concluded that their results “… suggest the possibility that stress can induce excessive, deep psychosomatic impacts with implicit behavioral manifestations, such as deficits in attachment and learning ability also in dogs. Long-term care and concern regarding the psychological impact of disasters appears necessary in humans and companion animals.
Military Working Dogs
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, former director of the animal behavior clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, describes Gina, a dog of war who returned from Iraq “only a shadow of her former self,” in his column for Psychology Today.6
“She was constantly anxious, looking out for trouble, and would not perform her duty of entering houses to flush out ‘insurgents’ in training sessions,” writes Dodman. “Her handler and the Army veterinarian suggested that she had PTSD, unthinkable at the time.”
The Army recognizes C-PTSD (C=canine, to distinguish from human PTSD) as confined to military working dogs present in a war situation, exposed to one or more notably traumatic events, and exhibiting symptoms, including an inability to perform the duties they were trained for.
“Interestingly,” Dodman writes, “not all dogs going through closely conforming traumatic events developed PTSD. The incidence was about 5-10 percent. Those that do develop PTSD seem to be genetically programmed to respond that way. It’s the same for soldiers.
Numerous genes and epigenetic influences have been suggested as underlying susceptibility to PTSD. Most somehow influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Certainly, catecholamines are intimately involved in the imprinting of powerful negative memories as evidenced by studies showing that pre-treatment and even immediate post-treatment of animals prevents the development of PTSD-like signs.”
Treatment and Management of Canine PTSD
According to integrative veterinarian Dr. Janice Huntingford, treatment for canine PTSD can be challenging and hinges on retraining that revolves around convincing these dogs that “the world is not a bad place.” She recommends the following:
- Provide the dog with a safe place of his own, whether it’s a room or a crate. This safe place needs to be quiet and away from everything. It needs to contain his favorite, familiar toys, food bowl and a piece of your clothing, so he realizes he’s not truly alone. Chew toys can also be beneficial.
- Keep a dependable routine, since routine is important for all dogs, and especially these dogs. They need to realize the world is an ordered place. Dogs with PTSD need to be fed and walked at the same times every day. Introduce new things very gradually so they have a chance to become used to them. This process requires a lot of love and patience.
- Exercise and play are also extremely important. If dogs with PTSD are given the opportunity to run and chase other dogs, play with their people, retrieve, swim, do nose work or run an agility course, they recover much more quickly.
- If the dog can relearn how to have fun, treatment is much more successful. It’s important to find activities your dog enjoys doing that engage her brain in a low-stress manner. Daily sniffaris and interactive treat release toys are also recommended.
- Along with retraining, many natural approaches and treatments can help. Start with a high-quality diet (nutritionally optimal, species-specific, fresh) containing all the vitamins and minerals canines require. The diet should be supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, as these nutrients naturally boost the “feel good” hormones that fight depression.
- Herbs and nutraceuticals that can also benefit dogs with PTSD include L-theanine, ashwagandha, rhodiola, bacopa and melatonin. Chinese herbs have also been used for anxiety and aggressive disorders in canines. Combining herbs and acupuncture is an effective treatment for decreasing anxiety.
- Dog pheromone collars or infusers have proven effective for anxiety problems, while flower essences and applied zoopharmacognosy can be used along with therapeutic touch and other modalities.
Veterinarians should be aware that being ventilated is closely associated with PTSD, as is undergoing surgery while in a conscious or semi-conscious state. These patients need to be handled with a great deal of care and liberal use of appropriate medications to limit the amount of psychological trauma they endure while undergoing veterinary procedures.
With appropriate treatment, some dogs seem to return to normal, but for others, the problem will need to be managed for the rest of their lives. According to Dodman, PTSD can last for years and is never truly cured. “It is more about management,” he says. “Dogs never forget.”
If you have a dog who is or might be suffering PTSD-like symptoms, I recommend you consult with a veterinary behaviorist with experience in treating pets with PTSD, and an integrative veterinarian who can suggest natural therapies to work in conjunction with behavioral therapy.