In the last few months, we’ve been besieged with images and
stories of destruction, the magnitude of which is difficult to comprehend:
Australian floods, New Zealand earthquakes, and most recently the devastating
earthquakes and tsunami in Japan. While the loss of human life and the impact on
the human survivors makes up the majority of the coverage, we know that many of
these people included pets in their families. What are the lasting impacts on
behavior of the surviving companion animals? Is it true, as many people believe,
that the emotional scars caused by trauma (whether it’s due to a natural event
like an earthquake, or an unnatural act like physical or mental abuse) can lead
to fearful or aggressive behavior? Just how common is emotional scarring in
companion animals? The answers to these questions may surprise you.
The unfortunate companion animals affected by recent
environmental catastrophes are likely experiencing what we call “post traumatic
stress disorder” (PTSD). PTSD is a recognized anxiety disorder induced by
exposure to life-threatening trauma. Widely recognized as a diagnosis for
people, PTSD has actually been studied in non-human animals, too. Research has
actually shown that the brains of traumatized animals exhibit chemistries that
differ from non-traumatized animals! True PTSD, however, is relatively rare in
companion animals, developing as a result of a significant life-threatening
event or predatory trauma.
If your dog has undergone a traumatic event, there are warning
signs of PTSD, which include hiding, loss of house training, barking, loss of
appetite and diminished interest in interacting with his human companions. It
can also include out-of-character aggression. If your dog ever does go through a
life-threatening or catastrophic event, veterinarians recommend providing a
safe, secure area such as a crate, bathroom or laundry room, where your dog can
get away from noise, people and other pets. Put familiar, comforting objects in
the space, such as their own bed, favorite toys and/or an article of your
clothing. Try and maintain a consistent routine, especially with regards to
feedings, walks and play times. Like the traumatized pets in Australia, any pet
that undergoes life-threatening trauma needs safety, a dependable routine,
behavioral (and perhaps medical) intervention as soon as possible.
What about fear and aggression in non-traumatized dogs? We
already know that true PTSD in dogs is rare, but too many shelter animals have
been rescued from abusive or neglectful situations, so it’s not unusual for them
to have fear or aggression issues.
Believe it or not, some dogs are genetically predisposed to
experience heightened fear. Just as people can be shy or outgoing, dogs show
similar personality inclinations. Other dogs will experience fear due to a
specific trauma, such a frightening thunderstorm. While some argue that abuse,
especially for young dogs, leads to PTSD, what is more likely is that rescue
animals are simply poorly socialized during the critical developmental period
between 3-16 weeks of age. At this age, puppies undergo a rapid learning
process, making it the ideal window of opportunity for socialization. When
puppies fail to encounter appropriate socialization during this critical period,
they can develop fear or aggression later in life.
Even though they present challenges, negative experiences or
insufficient socialization don’t have to define your dog’s long-term
personality. Fortunately, there are ways to work through emotional issues. In
this episode of Pet Talk, Dr. Sarah talks about how to recognize the symptoms of
fear and aggression, and how to deal with some of these issues.
What challenges have you experienced in parenting a companion
animal with emotional or social problems? What helped you work through these
issues? Share your story with us in the comment section below.