Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Updated: May 17
Can Dogs Suffer From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”
It has been observed that many combat-deployed military working dogs present exaggerated responses to certain environmental conditions, behaviors aimed at escaping or avoiding previously positive or neutral environments, changes in social interaction with their human handler and failure in the performance of previously mastered tasks.
The combination of these signs in dogs that have been exposed to stressful conditions has been denominated as Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).
Common causes of C-PTSD may include car accidents, household accidents, physical or emotional abuse, and negative interactions with other dogs or other animals.
Dogs suffering from C-PTSD will show signs of anxiety or stress when they are exposed to certain environmental conditions that may resemble the traumatic event.
Some signs of C-PTSD are:
Anxiety and stress signs. Some dogs will display signs of anxiety, such as, tail down or between legs, ears back, dilated pupils and panting.
Displacement behavior. Dogs who suffer C-PTSD may show normal behaviors displayed out of context, which is known as displacement behavior. Some examples of this kind of behavior are shaking when not wet, sudden scratching without itch and yawning when not tired.
Attempts to escape. When a dog feels anxious she/he will try to get out of the situation. They may pull at their leash, pull towards an exit, or try to climb into the handler’s arms.
The fact that a dog presents the above-mentioned signs does not mean that he/she suffers C-PTSD. The final diagnosis depends on the severity and frequency of the signs. If you believe that your dog is suffering from C-PTSD, or your dog displays some of these signs and they are getting worse then please seek assistance from a veterinarian and an animal behavior specialist in your area.
By Mdk572 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Treatment: Treatment of C-PTSD will vary depending on the severity of the signs. Some animals will show improvement after various training sessions while other animals may need prescribed medications. Therapy often includes environmental and social enrichment, as well as, desensitization training.
Working dogs will probably need time off work. Nutritional supplements such as Omega-3 fatty acids, L-theanine and melatonin can be helpful in treating C-PTSD just as they are for other forms of anxiety disorder in dogs.
Many cases will need a combination of training and drug therapy. Antidepressant drugs have been used to treat military dogs who suffer C-PTSD with positive results. It is important to consult with your veterinarian and a local trainer or animal behaviorist to develop the best plan for you and your dog to get the best possible results.
Is it curable?
Some animals seem to return to normal after treatment, however, some dogs will need behavioral and/or medical management throughout their lives.
Huntingford, J. (2012). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder In Dogs. Retrieved on January 2 from: http://ivcjournal.com/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-in-dogs/.
Pajer. N. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Can it affect your dog? Retrieved on January 2 from: https://www.cesarsway.com/dog-behavior/anxiety/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.
The DDOC Foundation. What is Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Retrieved on January 2 from: http://www.theddocfoundation.org/canine-ptsd.html.
Burghardt, W.F. (2013). Preliminary Evaluation of Case Series of Military Working Dogs Affected with Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (N=14). Presented at the Veterinary Behavior Symposium 2013. Retrieved on January 2 from: http://www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?id=6055833&pid=11382&catid=&=.
Stephanie Flansburg-Cruz, MVZ, MA www.stephanieflansburgcruz.com