Dogs and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
November 21, 2012
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By Dr. Becker
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in animals is not a formally recognized condition in veterinary medicine, but many animal behavior experts believe it exists and is even fairly common.
In a recent issue of Veterinary Practice News, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who teaches vet students about PTSD, talked about one of his cases.
Dog Shot by Police Develops PTSD
It involved a dog that decided to follow a police officer in pursuit of a suspect. The dog’s interest was peaked by the excitement of the foot chase. Unfortunately, the officer shot the dog, 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 a sensitive soul 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 was African American). 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 Show Signs of PTSD
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 1.
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 that 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.”
Post Traumatic “Negative Learning”
According to Dr. Dodman, the post-traumatic learning that results from a terrifying experience depends to a certain extent on the release of catecholamines in the brain in response to the event. Catecholamines are hormones – including dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine -- produced by the adrenal glands and released into the blood during physical or emotional stress.
Some post-traumatic learning is helpful in that it allows animals to remember a dangerous circumstance so it can be avoided in the future. But this “negative learning” goes from functional to dysfunctional when it becomes excessive and debilitating.
As is the case with people, some dogs develop PTSD while others under the same circumstances do not. The reason for these differences is unknown, but scientists theorize it may have to do with genetics. Some animals may be wired by nature to be more sensitive to the effects of psychological trauma than others.
ICU Experiences Can Trigger PTSD in Dogs
It’s not only gunshots, earthquakes and war zones that can create PTSD-like responses in dogs. Dr. Dodman believes that like people, dogs can also be traumatized by events like automobile accidents and ICU experiences.
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 animal 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.
If you have a dog who is or might be suffering PTSD-like symptoms, I recommend you consult with both an animal behaviorist 2, 3 with experience in treating pets with PTSD, and a holistic veterinarian who can suggest natural therapies to work in conjunction with behavioral therapy.