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Warriors with nightmares and other symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were described as far back as the Bronze Age in Assyrian literature. Fast forward 3,600 years to 2009, when researchers found that some military working dogs were unable to go back to their jobs as bomb sniffers following exposure to combat in Afghanistan. The researchers, a combination of PTSD experts in human psychiatry and psychology along with veterinary behaviorists, came up with a strict set of criteria for canine PTSD in those military dogs. They included escape or avoidance of work-related environments; changes in rapport with their handlers; and interference with critical tasks, including controlled aggression.
But can the term PTSD be applied to dogs who are pets in people’s homes and may have been through a traumatic experience in civilian life?
“The diagnosis of canine PTSD is based specifically on observations of military dogs affected by combat. I am cautious about applying the diagnosis to all dogs with problems following trauma,” says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM.
“But regardless whether the term PTSD as described for military dogs can be used for pets that face trauma, veterinary behaviorists who work with dogs affected by trauma are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments. People can go for talk therapy, she says, so we know what they are going through. “But dogs don’t have language. We can’t know if they have flashbacks or nightmares related to the experience. Therefore we are not in a position to apply the term PTSD with any degree of assurance.
“I’ve certainly seen dogs whose behavioral symptoms seem analogous to the signs of human PTSD,” the doctor notes. “I can say it looks similar. And in fact I do believe 100 percent that a dog can suffer PTSD in a civilian context.” Dogs go through natural disasters like earthquakes. They deal with abandonment, car accidents, physical and emotional abuse, scary interactions with other animals — all kinds of things that could trigger recurrent negative thoughts and maladaptive reactions. “But an analogy is different from a diagnosis,” she says. “The diagnostic criteria for dogs look different from the human criteria” because of a gap in communication between the species.
So how do you help a dog who appears to be suffering from PTSD-like symptoms? It takes a two-pronged approach involving both medication and behavioral strategies.
Drugs in the treatment arsenal. Anti-depressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) can help stabilize a dog’s mood over the long term and can even help build confidence. Another option is clonidine. It limits the flow of norepinephrine that’s part of the fight-or-flight state of panic. Some veterinarians might also prescribe buspirone, a mild-anti-anxiety drug. “Trazodone can help, too,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. Like fluoxetine, it is an SSRI that can take the edge off major depression. “Sometimes it takes a combination of drugs,” the doctor says. “There may be a period of trial and error, and the right drug combination may shift as the dog readjusts over time.”
Behavior modification. It’s critical to work with a dog very sensitively to help get him over the hump. You can’t just keep forcing him up against the thing or situation he’s afraid of with the idea that he will readjust with repeated exposure. He won’t.
One dog treated at Tufts — a sweet, soulful greyhound — had become scared to death of visiting the veterinarian’s office. He had always been fine going to the doctor, but a series of unfortunate accidents that included being impaled with a stick in the backyard and having a vaccination needle accidentally hit a nerve and cause a severe burning sensation made him resolute about refusing to get out of the car at the veterinary facility. His owner tried to coax him a couple of times, but he would plaster himself against the back seat in total panic. It then began to happen when they went to other places. When he saw people coming and going from a building, overwhelming fright and alarm would kick in.
Rather than trying to drag him into the vet’s office, the dog’s owner worked out a deal where the vets at the clinic would make home visits so he could have his regular check-ups. They went the extra mile with him to systematically desensitize and countercondition him to the veterinary hospital and other veterinary-like buildings. In the end, he was able to overcome his fear of buildings and of veterinary care.
That level of support is not always going to be available. But the point is that it takes a high level of commitment and patience to get a dog with PTSD-like symptoms to the point that he might be able to cope with situations that are interfering with his ability to live normally. An owner’s trying to rush things for his own convenience, even with the right medications prescribed, isn’t going to work.