Trauma in animals

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),
  • phobias,
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and
  • depression.

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.

Phobias

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

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

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:

  1. unwanted intrusions of memories of the traumatic event, often in the form of dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares
  2. avoidance of anything reminiscent of the traumatic event
  3. negative changes in cognition and mood
  4. 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.

Resources

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

Medication in behavior work

Even though the stigma surrounding psychotropic meds for humans has decreased in the past decades, many dog owners are still afraid of pharmacotherapy. They worry that medication will change their dog’s personality, turn their companion into a “zombie”. Many still believe that medication is a last result, but actually in some cases behavior modification can be quicker and more effective if it is paired with a medical intervention.

When should we consider using medication?

It makes sense to consider including drugs when the dog:

  • experiences a lot of fear, anxiety, and stress on a daily basis,
  • recovers very slowly after stressful events (days/weeks instead of minutes/hours),
  • does not respond to training: the condition either does not improve or even if one “problem” gets solved, another one pops up in its stead (for example the dog stops showing stereotypic behaviors but starts reacting aggressively to something).

What kinds of medication are out there?

There are two main medication groups:

  • “Maintenance” medication which works long-term. It usually takes several weeks before its effect can be observed. It is used when the triggers are frequent and unpredictable (for example the dog is terrified of traffic and the owners live in the city center).
  • “Situational” medication which starts working within a couple of hours. It is used when the triggers are rather rare and predictable (for example vet visits, fireworks).

What is the goal of pharmacotherapy?

Medication is used so that the dog:

  • is calmer and more balanced – the reactions to triggers are less intense and/or less frequent; everyday management is easier and more effective;
  • learns better, responds faster to behavior modification protocols;
  • feels better, because the underlying neurochemical imbalance is adressed;
  • recovers faster after stressful events.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Will the medication “cure” behavior problems?

NO, it won’t. Medication is practically always applied together with behavior modification protocols. It’s very rare that medication itself is enough.

Will the dog have to take medication for the rest of their life?

Just like humans this is an individual matter. Some stay on medication long-term, some can discontinue meds after a while. The start and discontinuation of pharmacotherapy must always be supervised by a veterinarian!

Why is the dosage so high?

Compared to human dosages it often seems like dogs are getting an extremely high dose of medication, but their metabolism is just much faster than ours – the active substance leaves their system much faster. Therefore, they need a higher dosage compared to the human one.

ATTENTION

  • Medication can only be prescribed by a veterinarian!
  • Pharmacotherapy requires regular check-ups!
  • Since animals can’t tell us how they are doing, finding and maintaining appropriate medication regimen can be tricky. The owner must watch their dog’s behavior closely!

Gomba is a charming dog with a lot of issues. Her owners first reached out to me because she was showing some concerning behaviors around guests. Unfortunately, over the following weeks we discovered that this was the least of her problems.

Gomba’s situation is an example of a perfect storm. She:

  • came from an impoverished environment
  • probably did not come in contact with people during the socialization period
  • might have a genetic predisposition (her mother was chained because she bit someone)
  • faced a host of medical issues (prolonged ear infection as a puppy, pseudopregnancy followed by an early spaying, allergies…)
  • fell victim to aversive training (alpha roll, flooding, corrections)

Her owners are some of the most dedicated people I know but it soon became clear that the issue was not the type or quantity of training we were doing.

We encountered all the signs that medication is necessary that I mentioned above:

  • Progress was slow and often as soon as we improved one problem, another one popped up (for example loose leash walking improved but she started barking as cyclists).
  • It was impossible to keep Gomba under threshold because we couldn’t avoid the two things that scared her the most: the staircase of the house and the buses on the nearby road (and people…).
  • A single incident was enough to set us back by weeks.

Eventually Gomba’s veterinarians prescribed her medication and her owners could relax a little:

  • The protocols we’ve been trying became easier to apply and more effective.
  • She can handle minor triggers much better.
  • When she does react, her reactions are less intense.
  • It’s easier to get her to disengage.
  • She can process stressful incidents without regressing.

ATTENTION! The medication is not a magic wand and it did not solve any of her problems. But it has allowed Gomba and her family to get out of crisis mode and start working on them.