Animals are loving, caring, intelligent and sensitive. While these qualities are wonderful, they also mean they can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, just like humans can. Sadly, it is also a seldom discussed topic with animals, so there is precious little information available on the topic of animals with PTSD. That is why I am including it on this site
Animals with PTSD are simply different than other animals, they are not broken or unlovable. They just need things done a bit differently in their environment, but it is not an unmanageable disorder. I currently have a cat named Punkin with feline PTSD, and I also had a dog named Bear with a slightly milder case. Both of my furbabies taught me a lot, and I would like to should share that information in case anyone reading this ends up adopting a furbaby who also has PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD in animals can be hard to identify if you do not know what you are looking for. Some symptoms include…
- A very sensitive startle reflex. This sometimes can cause animals to react inappropriately to situations. If they get scared, fight or flight instincts take over. My cat Punkin tends to freeze – his pupils dilate and he will not move. The first time I saw this happen, he was so stiff and paralyzed, I was afraid he was having a seizure or stroke.
- They can be very anxious too, which means they may be skittish, hide or potty in inappropriate places.
- Separation anxiety can be a problem.
- Like their human counterparts, animals with PTSD are hyper vigilant, always extremely aware of their surroundings.
- Getting angry easily can be another symptom.
- Depression is another symptom. Signs of depression can mean losing interest in things they normally enjoy such as food, playing or snuggles,
- They may have nightmares, which you can see by how they sleep. Most dogs and cats twitch a bit in their sleep, but a dog or cat with PTSD will do so more often and violently.
- Another big clue is when they avoid things that can be similar to the traumatic event. I believe Punkin’s PTSD stems from a traumatic event with a dog before we adopted him. We had an American Eskimo dog at the time of adopting him, and he actively avoided her most of the time.
- And yes, animals can have flashbacks, just like people. If you have not seen someone have a flashback or if you do not have them, it can be hard to identify. When Punkin has had them, he does not look quite like himself. His eyes get huge and fear is clearly written all over his face. He also acts completely out of character. The first time he had a flashback was when he attacked our American Eskimo. We did not know what was happening, so my husband and I called his name loudly. Punkin immediately stopped what he was doing, shook his head, looked like he was waking up then he ran off. He hid for quite a while, but after that, he returned to normal in a few hours. They also make him very tired, just like with humans. When Bear had flashbacks, they were not so intense. They stopped much quicker, and he did not seem nearly as disoriented as Punkin. For example, I once put on some leather gloves before working in the garden. Bear watched me put them on, then attacked my hands and stopped quickly. (His former owner, who I believe abused him, wore those gloves all the time for work.)
There are ways to cope with feline or canine PTSD.
You first of all need to be understanding and patient. Your pet is not trying to upset you or make your life more difficult. PTSD is a brain injury caused by trauma. He or she cannot help having this injury! Try to keep that in mind when things happen.
Talk to your furbaby. Constantly remind him or her that you love him or her. Say that yes, this absolutely stinks to live with, but everything is ok. He or she is safe now.
Follow your furbaby’s lead. Sometimes snuggling may help, sometimes it may not. Your furbaby knows best. If he or she is having trouble, try to pet him or her. If your furbaby pulls away, give some space. If he or she leans into the petting, snuggling may help.
Animals pick up on the energy of their humans. While no one can be happy 24/7, try to maintain an air of peace and calm as much as humanly possible. It helps reassure animals that all is right in their world when their humans are peaceful.
For kitties, catnip is truly our friend! Not all cats respond to catnip, but many do, and it is wonderful for calming down their anxiety. I started giving it to Punkin when I first realized he had PTSD and his anxiety levels were terribly high. It did not take him long to realize this stuff helps, and to start seeking it out on his own when he gets too anxious. I get super soft, fuzzy socks from the dollar store for this purpose. I put some catnip in a small rag, tie it up, and put it in the sock. Punkin also likes jingle bells, so I have some with bells inside, some without. He picks whatever he likes when he needs his ‘nip. Since catnip does not work for dogs, I used to give Bear valerian root pills. The smell is very strong and it tastes pretty yukky, so it was not easy to get him to take it at first. It did not take him long to realize that it helped though. In fact, he began going to where I stored it to let me know when he needed some valerian, like during thunder storms which terrified him.
Some pet parents prefer medications from their veterinarians. I have no experience with that, so unfortunately I cannot help. No doubt your vet can offer plenty of information though.
Here are a couple of interesting final thoughts…
Since I have Complex PTSD, which is very similar to PTSD, Punkin and I understand each other VERY well. In fact, he knows when my symptoms are flaring up, and comes to my aid. When I have a flashback, he demands my attention no matter what by meowing loudly or getting in my face. When I am anxious or depressed, he offers low key love. And, when his symptoms flare up, if I do not notice first, another one of our cats does the same things for him that he does for me. She is his natural born service cat!
If you too have a pet with PTSD, following these steps really can help. I am happy to say that Bear turned into a very loving, gentle dog from an aggressive and insecure one. Punkin’s symptoms are now managed very well. He rarely has flashbacks anymore, and his anxiety levels are much lower in general.