Friday, February 22, 2013

Canine PTSD: Its Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

How Can You Determine If Your Dog Has PTSD?




Reactivity in Dogs
I got the following email message the other day from a company called Dogwise. They publish and sell books primarily about reward-based dog training.
 

“Probably the hottest topic in dog behavior and training circles right now is reactivity. You may never be able to ‘cure’ a dog who is reactive—it’s hard to counter poor socialization and/or genetics—but there are a number of ways you may be able to control it, at least some of the time...”

My first reaction was to the word “reactive.” I’ve never understood how or why that term is being applied to behavior problems in dogs. It seems to me that if a dog doesn’t react to stimuli, that’s when he’s got serious physical, emotional or behavioral problems. 

Then, when the blurb informed me that “you may never be able to ‘cure’ a dog who is reactive,” I chalked that up to the fact that behavioral science techniques are usually ineffective, or at the very least only mildly effective, at solving most behavioral problems in dogs, because in my experience they’re geared to focus on changing outward behaviors rather than finding and changing the underlying cause. 

But as I thought more about it I realized that a very high percentage of the dogs being described as “reactive,” are actually over-reacting to stimuli, which suggests that they may be suffering from Canine PTSD, which is, indeed, very “difficult to cure.” 

Stress: The Underlying Cause
The database of the National Technical Information Service—an agency of the U.S. Government—shows that as many as 70% of individuals [human beings] living in the United States have experienced at least one serious traumatic event during their lifetime. But according to investigators at Boston University School of Medicine only 8% of those people whove experienced some form of trauma have developed PTSD as a result. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have a database showing the percentage of dogs who’ve experienced trauma. But given the number of dogs abandoned or brought to shelters every year, plus the number injured in fights with other dogs, and the number who’ve been mistreated by their owners, or mishandled by their trainers, groomers or vet techs (it happens), not to mention those who’ve been struck by a car, gotten lost, were fought over during a divorce, etc, etc, etc, I would be very surprised if the number of dogs whove experienced some type of trauma wasn’t at least 70%. And I’d also be surprised if the number of dogs who’ve developed symptoms of PTSD as a result of such wasn’t very close to the figure of 8% found in human beings. 

This would suggests that since there are roughly 75 million pet dogs in America, theres a real possibility that more than 6 million American dogs might have PTSD. 

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that “more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 deployed military dogs are developing some form of canine PTSD,” meaning that there are only 30 or so who’ve developed the disorder. Granted, in working military dogs the symptoms are usually much more severe than what see in pet dogs. But the problem still exists pet dogs, and in much larger numbers. 

So when does a traumatic event of any kind stay a one-time thing, and when does it actually cause PTSD? And can we apply any of the criteria used in diagnosing PTSD in humans to diagnose our dogs as well? 

I think so. 

Diagnosing Canine PTSD
In humans, PTSD is not just caused by a traumatic experience, but one that causes a tremendous amount of stress. The traumatic event causes the body to release a cocktail of hormones and neurochemicals specifically designed to deal with that stress. But in large doses those chemical agents also can reportedly cause the same or similar kinds of neurological damage found in patients with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This can adversely affect mood, memory and learning in deep and lasting ways. (See: Does PTSD Cause Brain Damage in Dogs?) *


Since much of the literature on how stress affects memory, learning, and behavior in humans comes from animal studies—primarily on rats and mice—and since a dog’s body produces the same basic kinds of stress hormones produced by rats and humans, it’s very likely that dogs—even pet dogs—can develop symptoms of PTSD. 

In humans these symptoms include re-experiencing the original trauma, fearful avoidance of stimuli associated with that event, and increased forms of arousal such as an sleep disturbances, rage, aggression, and lastly hypervigilance, or in the lingua obscura of some dog trainers: “reactivity.” 

Granted, our lives are much more complicated and stressful than the kind our dogs lead. A human being can develop PTSD simply by observing the scene of an accident or natural disaster. Some can develop symptoms just by looking at videos or photographs. Dogs aren’t as deeply affected by the passive observation of horrific events as we are. 

On the other hand, there are far more cultural taboos and legal restrictions against doing harm to human beings than there are about hurting dogs. Remember, up until a few years ago the most popular training book in America—How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete—contained the following “training” advice: “How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.” 

Hurting dogs is pervasive in our country. People like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick—who spent time in prison for running a dog-fighting ring out of his home—are just a drop in the bucket in terms of the kind of people out there brutalizing dogs on a regular basis.

With all that in mind I would be very surprised to find that the number of dogs in America who have Canine PTSD isn’t more than double or even triple the 6 million I suggested above. 

Diagnostic Signs of PTSD in Human Beings
  • Criterion A – Exposure to a traumatic stressor. 
  • Criterion B – Re-experiencing the event (flashbacks). 
  • Criterion C – Avoidance and numbing. 
  • Criterion D – Hyperarousal. 
  • Criterion E – Duration of symptoms for at least 1 month. 
  • Criterion F – Significant impairment of normal functioning. 

Personally, I think dogs can exhibit all 5 of these signs and symptoms. The only one that might seem controversial is the idea that dogs can have “flashbacks.” I think that depends on how we view the differences between how memory operates in humans and dogs.
 
In human beings, memory operates on three basic levels: physical (i.e., unconscious or procedural) memory, emotional (or affective) memory, and mental, or declarative memory (which includes semantic, episodic, and autobiographical memory). Only the last requires both a sense of self and a linear sense of time (knowing that there’s a past, present, and future), forms of cognition that dogs don’t have (or don’t seem to). 

In human subjects, flashbacks come primarily from sense memory; the sound of chopper blades for example. This then triggers emotional memory, where the fear, panic and helplessness experienced during the original trauma, come flooding back, raising blood pressure, releasing stress hormones, etc, etc. In many cases, the subject doesn’t even realize that he or she is not actually safe in bed or hiding in the closet, but is convinced that he or she is back on the battlefield or is about to be sexually assaulted, etc. 

It seems to me that dogs are quite capable of experiencing both sense memory and emotional memory. In fact, the work of two Russians—physiologist Ivan Pavlov and theater director (and inventor of “method acting”) Constantin Stanislavsky—show quite clearly that sense memory and emotional memory are inextricably linked. 

I should point out that the 5 diagnostic criteria I mentioned above are only broad categories, and that there are many much finer points to be looked at when diagnosing PTSD in humans. I think the same should hold true for diagnosing Canine PTSD as well. 

To help with this I’ve created a mock-up for a potential Canine PTSD questionnaire to be filled out by a dog’s owner, veterinarian, trainer or behaviorist. It can be found by clicking here. (I would be very interested in getting feedback, whether some things should be added, subtracted, or tossed out altogether.) 

Please keep in mind that most of what I’m saying is hypothetical. We need more research, we need to create a much larger yet credible database. We need to start thinking along new lines. PTSD is not something that can only happen to human beings, or to our military dogs. Those brave and hardworking four-legged members of our armed forces are showing us that there’s a much larger problem right under our noses, affecting millions of American doggies, animals who are currently nestled safely on their doggie beds or sleeping on our couches, and yet who may be in emotional distress and need our help. 

If you agree with or relate to anything I’ve said, please pass it on to your vet, dog trainer, and anyone else you think might be able to help us move forward in making this problem more widely known. 

I firmly believe that Canine PTSD is a very real condition that can be found in a great many pet dogs, and we need to start addressing it now.

LCK
“Life Is an Adventure
—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
Join Me on Facebook!
Follow Me on Twitter!
 

My Puppy, My Self (archived)

15 comments:

  1. I believe my dog has canine PTSD. when she was younger, she witnessed her sister and another dog die of heat stroke and was in the beginning stages of having one herself by the time we found out... and just last year she was bitten by a five and a half foot rattle snake because she was protecting me. Thankfully she made it through that but ever since the day she almost died of a heat stroke, she has had really bad anxiety. It doesn't take much of a stimulation |it could be anything from a gunshot or thunder to someone just talking too loud to just riding in a car| for her to start shaking really hard and panting so fast it's almost hyperventilating. I want to help her push through it but nothing seems to help. One of my goals is to get her used to riding in a car because I'd really like to take her with me when I go places but she gets so scared in cars that I just leave her home... I don't know what else to do...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, Shelby,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Hopefully some of the articles I've written here will help with your dog's PTSD.

    Have you tried doing "The Pushing Exercise?" That's usually the best first step. Bark therapy can also be helpful.

    Best of luck.

    Please keep in touch!

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi,
    I think my dog also has a form of PTSD. When she was a puppy she was passed around to different homes until she was about 5 months old. The home she was in before us kept her kenneled directly with a very mean Great Pyrenees. I also believe she was kick because her rib cage seems to have been broken because it doesn't align properly. When we got her, she showed signs of submission. I thought it was just because of yet another home. She soon adapted to her new home and became a great dog. She is very non aggressive. she is a very sweet and loveable dog. Recently she has become very skiddish when you try to pick her up. She will yipe as if she has been kicked and is some cases she will "cry" and pee a little. She had an incident where my dad was leaving for work and wanted to take her outside to make sure she could go to the bathroom(she has recently started going to the bathroom in the house). He picked her up and she started to yipe like she was hurt and squirmed and when my dad tried to get a better hold of her she bit him.

    I have read in previous articles that biting can be a sign, along with some other personality traits. I am wondering if this sounds similar to canine PTSD. I went through your questionnaire but could not find contact information to send it on.
    Any Help would be great. I would also like to submit my questionnaire that i filled out if you are still accepting them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The questionnaire is just for your personal edification. I haven't figured out a way to make it interactive yet. I hope to do so soon.

    Since the doggie yiped when your dad picked her up, I would take her to the vet. It's possible that there's some physiological problem that needs to be accounted for or ruled out. The fact that she recently started going to the bathroom inside the house could also be due to a physiological problem.

    As for helping her out psychologically, outdoor play is one of the best antidotes for PTSD, particularly playing tug-of-war (where you let the dog win and praise her for winning), and fetch too. If she won't play with you outdoors, you could start hand feeding her all her meals outdoors. I wouldn't recommend doing the pushing exercise until you've had her checked by the vet.

    Thanks again,

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi,

    In March we adopted two rescue pup siblings, Max & Penny, terrier mixes. Raised in a wonderful foster home since birth along side their mother and the rest of the litter, these two were particularly closely bonded. They quickly picked up on house training, sit, stay and so forth. They get plenty of exercise, chasing each other and rough housing although they are very careful not to hurt one and other.

    Unfortunately, a month and a half ago at the conclusion of our evening hike, the neighbor's 10 yr. old male dalmatian escaped out their front door and attacked me and Max. My husband desperately held onto Penny while trying to stave the dog off. Max's front leg was split up the center from the knee to the shoulder and he was in shock.

    Although he is now mostly healed and beginning to use the leg again, neither he or Penny are the same as before the attack. Both have begun eliminating in the house, become destructive if left alone for so much as 5 minutes, desperately clinging to us. They are overly anxious when approaching other dogs, although as soon as the other dog responds, they yipe as though they had been attacked. Just as with the Oddy and Penny case, Penny seems more traumatized than Max although she was not injured. We are beginning to do the Pushing Exercise, although there are times they are too pushy such as jumping up into our laps while we are eating and grabbing food away from us. As far as play goes, they have withdrawn from us playing only with each other.

    Would you say it's time to call in a professional trainer?

    Thanks,

    Sue

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Suzanne,

    Thanks for contacting me.

    I'm sorry to hear about what happened to Max and Penny.

    I would concentrate on helping Penny. Spend time working with her, without Max present. It doesn't need to be a great amount of time. 10 or 15 minutes 2x a day would be helpful.

    Where do you live?

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi - I just came across this after googling PTSD in dogs for the first time; thanks for the information. One of our rescue dogs came to us in very bad shape; we thought a stable loving home and time would heal her, and they've certainly helped turn her into a happy girl over the past year or so, but she still has daily panic attacks and is deathly afraid of new people, loud noises, and all sorts of other things. Among many other horrors in her past life she was shot twice (we only know this from xrays which show the air rifle pellets lodged in her neck and side). I really like this idea of "bark therapy" for her, to try something more proactive. We've done some basic training with her so hopefully we can figure out teaching "speak" and "quiet"! Anyway, I look forward to learning more about PTSD in dogs as you continue your research. Lisa

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for posting.

    Bark therapy can be very beneficial. I also highly recommend doing "The Pushing Exercise."

    Best wishes,

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi,
    My name is Andrea, and I NEED your help!

    I rescued a Chihuahua from ACC in NYC 8 months ago, Four months after he lived with my family and I, my partner and I moved to a different neighborhood close by. Baldor has been living here for another 4 months, and his symptoms keep escalating.
    There was howling during nightmares on 4 occasions. He will have good days, and then fall back into a pattern of pacing, shaking, and needing to be in close physical contact with me. I have been number 1 since the day I took him home wrapped in my coat while the snow was falling, I would find this flattering if it didn't cause him so much distress. He howled a lot for the first month we lived here whenever we would leave the house. Now he still does it from time to time. He has started allowing my boyfriend to take him on walks but is listless or hypervigilant while they are out. He has grown fond of my partner, but can barely trust him outside the home 3 blocks from us.
    If we walk to my parent's house which is 30 minutes away, he will be elated to see them and feel right at home. Unless I leave. But if we leave together after sunset he will not walk after we leave the block and will just stare back in the direction of the house.
    The only thing I know about his back story is that he was abandoned in a park on the last days of January with another chihuahua. They shared a cage in the shelter before I took Baldor home.
    He was extremelly sick for the first week with me, he had kennel cough and an infection from the stitches of his neutering operation. He had ear infections that took months to clear. The tartar buildup in his teeth was so bad that he needed to have a professional cleaning3 months after. He was on a recovery diet as well.
    At present his physical health is good but his nervousness is getting to me. He needs to be on top of me day and night or in very close vicinity or he cannot stop shaking. He has his own daybed but sleeps with us at night. He likes this a lot.
    We feed him a raw diet of frozen dog food which he also loves, and we give him cut veggies or fruits for treats. He is a very loved, wonderfuly little dog and I truly love him with all of my heart. It kills me to see him struggle so much and I am at a loss of what to do. Recently he has started eliminating indoors again. I take him on long walks in the park, and we interact with other dogs, Although briefly because he uncomfortable and aggressive 80% of the time.
    Any and all questions and tips are incredibly welcome from anyone, thank you so much!!!! :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi Andrea,

    I'm sorry to hear about what's going on with Baldor.

    This blog is meant to be a resource for solving such problems, but sometimes it's hard to figure out what to do.

    You might consider coming to the Rescue Dog Owners Support Group I hold on Monday nights. We meet at 131 West 72nd Street from 8 - 9 PM.

    You can find more information here: http://www.leecharleskelley.com/supportgroupcanineptsd.html

    For now, I would start feeding Baldor outdoors, using the pushing exercise. http://www.leecharleskelley.com/trainingtips/thepushingexercise.html

    This article may also help: http://leecharleskelleysblog.blogspot.com/2013/01/separation-anxietydistress-its-causes.html

    Best wishes,

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  12. My small ten pound dog and I were attackd by a 60/70 pound pitbull. My wounds were not bad and I know I have PTSD. My little queen was shredded and terrified. She is recovering nicely. I have to take her to the vet daily for bandage changes and to make sure she does not get an infection. Tonight at the Vet's office a pitbull that looked like the one that attacked us came into the room, not next to us but close. My poor dog with a leg that can not be used and in what is like a body cast, tried to climb out of her container an into my arms..crying the whole time.It was horrible. I explaind what happen and would they walk their dog out of the room. They smiled, said they were sad to hear this and said of course. It took my dog an hour to calm down. She is sad, scared, bored, dispressed and now PTSD. I have no clue how to help her.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Terri,

    The good news is that if this recent attack was the first time your dog found herself in a stressful, traumatic experience, and if you work on the problem starting now you have a better chance of eliminating the problem.

    Please read all of the articles here and follow the instructions on how to begin working on the healing process.

    If you need any further feedback, let me know.

    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  14. I am so glad I found this website. My name is Carolyn and I believe my dog Moose has PTSD. She is a year and a half old pittie mix. Sweetest dog in the world. She is 1 of 5 dogs in my household. She had a litter of puppies back in October and ever since she has not been the same. She reacts horribly around other dogs. She begins to whine, rear back, and start barking. I know it's because the puppies are gone. But I do not know how to help her. Before she had her litter she was in training to be a service dog. She loves people, behaved impeccably, and everyone was just drawn to her. Now she is jumping all over guests, whining for affection constantly, and constantly taunts my other dogs. I can't leave her out of her cage anymore because she is now chewing (she never chewed anything even as a puppy). But every time I put her in the cage she tries to bust out, she has literally torn her mussel up from trying to break through the door. I don't know what to do. When we go on walks she reacts to dogs. I try and distract her with food but she doesn't care. She is 100% focused on the dog.

    Do you have any advice for me?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I'm sorry Moose has been going through these changes.

      Please read all of the blog articles here. There are numerous exercises described in them. (It would be difficult to explain them all in a reply to your comment.)

      I will say one thing, having the puppies was probably not the root cause of her PTSD. There was probably an event or series of events that took place before she had them that's causing her to over-react now. The stress her body went through by giving birth, etc., just caused those unresolved emotions to come to the surface. The fact that her feelings are now being exhibited and are in plain sight is a good thing. (Also, the fact that she's now engaging in destructive chewing suggests that she was punished for using her puppy teeth when she was going through her oral development phase, then repressed her oral urges in order to feel safe.)

      The first thing to do is to NOT punish or scold her for these behaviors. It not only won't work (at least not in the long run), it will backfire and make things worse. Also, try not to put her into situations that tend to overload her emotional circuitry if you can.

      Here are some basic exercises I would recommend.

      1) Pushing for food. http://www.leecharleskelley.com/freetrainingtips/thepushingexercise.html

      2) Playing tug-of-war and fetch (mostly tug) outdoors for about 15 - 20 minutes, 2 x a day, with a cool-down period afterwards where you give her some gentle, deep tissue massage.

      3) Teach her to speak on command.

      4) Slowly teach her to hold a long down stay (for up to 30 mins., starting with 30 seconds, then 1 minute, then 2 minutes, then 5, then 10, etc., using game of tug or fetch as a "reward."

      5) If she's not as big as her name implies, teach her to jump up on command, then teach her to only jump up when the command is given. http://leecharleskelleysblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/how-to-cure-jumping-up.html

      I hope this helps!

      Delete