What is PTSD in Dogs?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that results from experiencing a severely traumatic event such as losing their owner and abuse. The disorder affects dogs just as it affects humans.
PTSD in dogs can take on different forms including acute PTSD, chronic PTSD, and delayed onset PTSD.
Acute PTSD is the most commonly observed form in dogs. The disorder and associated symptoms occur immediately following the traumatic event and typically subside within three months.
Dogs with chronic PTSD also start displaying symptoms relatively quickly following the trauma. However, these symptoms remain persistent and easily triggered for a longer period than three months.
Delayed onset PTSD occurs when symptoms don’t arise until more than six months following the traumatic event. Sometimes, symptoms may dramatically increase that were initially mild. Other times, symptoms may not even appear until after a long delay.
What Causes PTSD in Dogs?
Just like in humans, PTSD in dogs is caused by a traumatic event. These traumatic events may include:
- Natural disasters
- Loss of owner
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Growing up in a puppy mill or hoarder home
- Serving in the military or police
- Going through a major accident (like a car crash)
- Being a bait dog for dogfighting
- Being attacked by other animals
Who’s At Risk of Developing PTSD?
PTSD is most commonly observed in working dogs who have had careers in military or police fields. An estimated 5% of working dogs returning from war zones have PTSD. Canine PTSD affects between 5 to 17 percent of canines, however the disorder has just been recognized in dogs in the last ten years.
What are the Symptoms of PTSD in Dogs?
It can be difficult to differentiate between PTSD and other anxiety disorders in dogs. For example, going to the bathroom in the house, barking or whining, and destructive behavior can all point at either PTSD or separation anxiety. A dog with PTSD may also display the below signs of stress:
- Tucked tail
- Pinned back ears
- Dilated pupils
- Shaking or trembling
- Rapid breathing
- Crouching low to ground
- Sudden aggression
- Clinging to owner or caretaker in fear
- Hyper awareness of surroundings and environment
- Working dogs with PTSD will often shut down and refuse to work
How is PTSD in Dogs Diagnosed?
You will need to consult a veterinarian to receive a proper diagnosis of PTSD in your dog. The vet will initially rule out any physical causes behind your dog’s anxiety. A physical exam will be performed to ensure there aren’t any swollen or painful portions on the body. Sometimes, pain or discomfort from unresolved chronic conditions can be confusing to a dog and result in them becoming stressed. When this is the case, PTSD symptoms will eliminate quickly when the pain is addressed and alleviated.
In addition to a physical exam, blood tests will be performed to check for viral infections, hormonal imbalances, and toxins. Once any physical issues have been ruled out, your vet will review the history of your dog and any recent traumatic events they may have experienced. For this reason, delayed PTSD may be more difficult to diagnose.
What is the Treatment for PTSD in Dogs?
Treatment for PTSD in dogs is typically a combination of behavioral and medical approaches. A sedative medication will likely be prescribed. Alprazolam, also known as Xanax, is commonly prescribed as a sedative. Other sedative medications that may be prescribed are Valium, Zoloft, and Prozac.
The behavioral approach to treatment is heavily focused on retraining that helps your dog feel like their environment is safe once again. Techniques include establishing a stricter routine so your dog knows what to expect day to day, exercise and play therapies, and dog pheromone collars and infusers.
Exercise and play therapy sessions should take place when the dog is in a relaxed state of mind and enjoying the activity. The intention behind these sessions is to increase the levels of dopamine in the dog, improving their mood in a safe manner. If any signs of tension are present during the play session, it should be ended so no additional stress hormones are produced.
Another type of behavioral training that is commonly used in dogs with PTSD is systemic desensitization. This training exposes your dog to whatever trigger brings on their anxiety or fear. The goal is to get your dog to associate the trigger with treats and positivity, not trauma and anxiety.
While these treatments may not cure the dog’s PTSD, it could help your dog to live a healthy, happy life and limit the stress and trauma they experience.