Why do some dogs develop PTSD while others experiencing the same trauma don't?
Originally published in slightly different form on December 20, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
PTSD Develops in Different Ways in Different Dogs
This is the 4th in a series of case histories of dogs I’ve worked with who
may have suffered from PTSD, which statistics suggest may be much more common
in pet dogs than it is in military dogs.
This series of posts is meant to be a helpful diagnostic tool for
veterinarians, shelter and rescue workers, as well as dog owners and dog
trainers to hopefully prevent more cases of Canine PTSD from going undiagnosed
and, therefore, untreated. (A Canine PTSD symptom scale can be found here.)
The first case history (of my own dog Freddie) can be found here.
In Freddie’s case, I witnessed the original trauma first-hand, and saw the
resulting behavioral disorder that developed very quickly as a result. There
was no guesswork. This is the easiest type of case to diagnose, the one where
the owner was witness to the original trauma.
A second case involved a boxer named Fancy whose stress was probably the
result of being kept in a crate at the vet’s office during an important social
development phase. Fancy’s story can be found here.
A third case, of Noodles, a dachshund, who was biting his owners, his
dogwalker, and eventually me, can be found here.
Noodles was easier to diagnose because his affect and behaviors were
off the charts.
Now comes the story of Odysseus and Penelope (Oddy and Penny), two miniature
schnauzers who were attacked by another, much larger dog, while out on a walk.
Penny actually came pretty close to dying from her wounds, and was in the
hospital clinging to life for several days. She pulled through, but, oddly
enough, didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress. Oddy, on the other hand, who
wasn’t hurt as badly, did.
Why the difference?
First it’s important to understand how the dogs' personalities differ.
They’re roughly the same age. Penny is about two months older than Oddy. She’s
also much smaller; Oddy is almost the size of a standard schnauzer. And while
they have some surprisingly similar character traits in some ways, they’re also
When I first met them, I found that Penny was very playful, a little
mischievous at times, and liked to roll over on her back for tummy rubs. She
was quite a bit smaller than her “brother,” but seemed to be in charge of
things. She also seemed to dislike going on walks, which I thought might have
been a repercussion from the attack, but was told that she’d always been like
Oddy, on the other hand, didn’t know how to play except with Penny. He also
exhibited more tension, stress, and showed less emotional elasticity than his
“sister.” For instance, I never saw him roll over on his back for a tummy rub
or for any other reason.
They would play together every day, but if Penny found another dog she liked
to play with Oddy was unable to join in.
Another difference is that Penny had been a part of the household since
puppyhood while, for various reasons, Oddy had been kenneled (at the breeder)
during certain important developmental phases, and hadn’t been brought into the
household till he was nearly six months of age. I don’t know for certain that
this accounts for the difference in their responses to the traumatic event, but
there is evidence
showing that children in foster care may be five times more likely to develop
PTSD than children raised in a traditional family
Personally, I believe that the dog-human bond which develops during
puppyhood bears some important similarities to having a normal childhood with
loving human parents.
There may be another reason Oddy was more affected by the
event emotionally, though Penny sustained the most physical damage.
Life-Threatening Physical Injuries & Hypercathexis
In 1920 Sigmund Freud wrote about the symptoms of PTSD (then referred to as
“the war neuroses”). He said that “two characteristics emerge prominently: first ,
that the chief weight in their causation seems to rest upon the factor of
surprise, of fright; and secondly, that a wound or injury inflicted
simultaneously works, as a rule, against [their] development.”
(“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920.)
If this is true, it might explain why Penny didn’t develop symptoms of PTSD,
and why Oddy did. It also explains why, generally speaking, a soldier who isn’t
seriously injured is more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than those who are.
First, I think it’s important to understand why Freud refers to what we now
call PTSD as a neurosis. Neuroses are anxiety-based behaviors or sets of
behaviors, where the energy invested in them is out of balance, either with the
normal reasons for producing such behaviors or with the amount of energy that
might normally be expended on them. In dogs the 1st might be something like
humping inanimate objects or chasing cars, and 2nd might manifest as separation
anxiety or showing obsessive guarding of toys or other objects. Second, most if
not all neuroses are the result of repressed emotional energy. I believe this
is true in both humans and dogs.
In Freudian terms, the mind's "control panel" (the ego)
has the job of deciding which internal and external stimuli (excitations)
should be a) paid attention to, b) ignored, c) have their energies blocked (repressed),
or d) have their energies projected (cathected) onto persons or
objects in the environment including the subject's own body. So the gross
physical trauma--the sheer mechanical force that accompanies a serious,
life-threatening injury--demands that none of the mind's energy can be wasted
on "mere trifles;" it all has to be projected onto the body itself so
as to enable healing and/or self-preservation. Or as Freud put it, “the
physical injury, by calling for a narcissistic hypercathexis of the injured
organ, would bind the excess of excitation.” (610)
Meanwhile, for the subject whose injuries aren't as serious, those same
emotional energies aren't projected (or cathected) onto the body, they're
repressed by the mind, resulting in what Freud called "the compulsion to
repeat," which is one of the chief features of PTSD (i.e., the subject is
unconsciously compelled to repeat the feelings surrounding the initial trauma over and over again).
Furthermore, Freud made it quite clear that fright, fear, and anxiety were
not synonyms; they represented clear distinctions in how we relate to danger.
Anxiety, he said, “describes a particular state of expecting the
danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one. ‘Fear’
requires a definite object of which to be afraid. ‘Fright,’ however, is the
name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into danger
without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise.” (598.)
Once again, if we look at the stories we hear from veterans about how their
PTSD developed it’s not uncommon to hear them say that the danger “came out of
nowhere,” or “I wasn’t prepared for what happened.” And since PTSD is
classified as an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is a state of “constantly
expecting … danger or preparing for it,” this makes sense.
While I don't believe dogs think about their experiences, or try to explain
or understand them through internal monologues, I think the basic principles
can still be applied.
If I'm right, then Penny's injuries necessitated that whatever psychic
(mental or emotional) energy she had available at the time be focused (or
projected) solely on to the tasks of self-preservation and healing. Meanwhile
the excess energy the traumatic event had stimulated in Oddy had no place to
go. It got stuck, which in turn created an unconscious compulsion to repeat the
event over and over.
I recently heard from Oddy's owners and they say that while he's still prone to act protective, he's much more relaxed and playful and has, in all other respects, become a completely different dog!
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