Nowadays it’s become very possible to say that someone is “traumatized” or “has PTSD” – both referring to people and to dogs – but it’s often not the case. In reality many “behavior problems” do not meet criteria of PTSD or other trauma related conditions. And it’s important to remember that while they might be scary or inconvenient to us, even severe behavior problems are an attempt at coping and they serve a function to the animal.
Let’s have a look at what we know about trauma related problems in animals.
What are the possible consequences of trauma?
First of all, there is a whole range of reactions to traumatic events:
- PTS (post-traumatic stress)/PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),
- generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and
It is estimated that 75% of people make full recovery after traumatic events. There is no data about non-laboratory animals, but a study done with laboratory rats showed a similar rate of recovery.
Phobia is a profound, excessive, abnormal fear response that occurs out of proportion to the actual danger posed. Phobias are maladaptive, cause clinically significant distress or impairment in normal functioning (social and pleasurable activities) when the fearful stimulus is present or anticipated.
Generalized anxiety disorder
An animal suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) will typically exhibit constant or near constant signs of fear and anxiety, regardless of the context or the stimuli to which the animal is exposed. Symptoms common in dogs with GAD are scanning the environment, vocalizing and tense/fearful body language such as alert ears, stiff body posture and tucked in tail. Those behaviors can become more intense in certain situations but are present long-term.
Depression has been extensively studied in animals both in setting where they were exposed to acute stress and chronic stress. The behaviors exhibited by animals are considered analog to symptoms of human depression. Typically we’ll see withdrawal from activities the animal previously enjoyed (anhedonia), sleep disorders and decrease of investigative behaviors, movement and/or appetite.
PTSD is one of the most severe outcomes of exposure to a severely aversive event.
For clinical diagnosis of PTSD in humans, several conditions have to be fulfilled:
- there was a traumatic event in the patient’s history
- the patient must exhibit a number of symptoms from each of the four clusters, and
- the symptoms must be present for longer than 1 month.
The four clusters are:
- unwanted intrusions of memories of the traumatic event, often in the form of dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares
- avoidance of anything reminiscent of the traumatic event
- negative changes in cognition and mood
- changes in arousal and reactivity, including hyperarousal symptoms such as hypervigilance and increased startle response
For animals there is no single model of PTSD that everyone agrees with, which is not surprising, since many PTSD symptoms are hard to study in animals.
Trauma-based approach to treatment
It’s important to differentiate between phobias, GAD, depression and PTSD because they require different treatment protocols.
However, there are some general principles that apply for all cases:
- Take care of any existing health issues (treat/manage symptoms).
- Have knowledge, understanding and empathy for the traumatic experience.
- Have low expectations and be prepared to lower them.
- Have patience and focus on your animal’s feelings, not actions. Trauma treatment is not training.
- Create a safe environment, one that is consistent and predictable. Be a companion, not a captor.
- Prevent re-traumatization. Build trust and resilience by providing choice and control.
Post inspired by the Control the Meerkat Conference: Trauma in Animals 2021, especially by Dr. Frank McMillan’s and Natalie Light’s presentations.
A must read: “Mental Health and Well-being in Animals”, ed. Frank McMillan, Boston 2020.
A case study: Drax’s Galactic Adventure