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Natural Awakenings Fairfield County & Housatonic Valley CT

PTSD in Pets: What to Look for and How to Help

Aug 03, 2014 04:07AM ● By Mary Oquendo

For many, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) conjures up images of a person who is the victim of a harrowing injury or severe psychological shock. However, pets also can suffer from PTSD. While not widely recognized by veterinary medicine, many animal behavioral experts are familiar with PTSD in animals. Veterinarians such as Dr. Karen Becker and Dr. Nicholas Dodman have been leading the way for the veterinary medical community to acknowledge PTSD in pets.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder modifies the chemistry of the brain.

There are three ways in which this happens:

1. The first change is seen in the locus coeruleus, which regulates the brain’s synthesis and release of two catecholamines. Catecholamines are hormones secreted during stress, panic and pain. The locus coeruleus becomes over-reactive, releasing too much of these hormones even when the event is over or in new situations which hold little or no threat.

2. There is an increase in the secretion of corticotropin-releasing hormones (CRH). CRH is one of the hormones that prepare the body and mind to face an emergency. It is regulated by neurons linking the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland. This increase in secretion is telling the body that there is an emergency that is not really there.

3. The opioid system of the brain, which desensitizes feeling of pain, becomes hyperactive. It results in an emotional numbing and inability to experience feelings.

All these factors overwhelm the ability of the pet to cope.

In the wild, these mechanisms are necessary for survival; it is how they learn to protect themselves. But our pets are not wild animals.

What can cause PTSD in pets? Some causes include, but are not limited to:

• Fireworks

• Gunshots

• Severe weather, such as earthquakes and thunderstorms

• Being dropped off at shelters and boarding facilities

• Highly traumatic emotional experiences, such as war zones and natural or man-made disasters

• Break-ins while pets are home

• Grief over the loss of a family member, including other pets

• Scheduled surgery. There is a condition called ICU psychosis, in which the kidneys and livers do not respond to the normal processing of anesthesia. It causes disorientation and fluctuations in alertness during the procedure.

• Unscheduled emergency hospitals visits, especially if they are admitted

• Becoming lost and unable to find way home

• Physical abuse

Some pets are more prone to PSTD than others. Some experts believe genetics plays a role in a pet’s ability to process trauma. In addition, therapy, trauma, military and police dogs are particularly vulnerable.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

A pet can present with one or more of these symptoms:

• Anxiety, which can form the foundation of many different adverse behavioral issues

• Difficulty sleeping and nightmares

• Avoidance of any physical contact with people and other pets.

• Reactive to stimuli associated with trauma

If you suspect your pet has PTSD, contact an animal behaviorist and holistic veterinarian who recognize and have experience with PTSD. Long-term effects of untreated PTSD can result in a pet being unable to form attachment bonds, learning and/or training difficulties, and medical problems from living in a state of stress.

What can you do to prevent or lessen the effects of exposure to PTSD?

If you think your pet will be in a stressful situation such as in a nursing home, scheduled surgery, large crowds or outside family, try to prepare beforehand. The following activities can help:

• Play soothing or classical music (refer to Natural Awakenings Fairfield County’s’ July 2014 issue for an article on music and pets)

• Use botanicals or essential oil blends developed for stress reduction from Bach’s, Aroma Dog/Cat, Do Terra or Alaskan Essences

• Place light blue or purple crystals, such as blue lace agate, lepidolite or amethyst, in a mojo bag on or near your pet

• Play beforehand as exercise releases dopamine, also known as the “happy hormone”

• Ground before and after. Grounding is letting their paws touch the earth. The earth has a negative charge. Stress creates free radicals in the body, which have a positive charge. Allowing your pet to run or hike neutralizes those free radicals, resulting in a calmer animal.

“The best way to minimize PTSD in your pet is to first identify the triggers that have the potential to cause a reaction and then figure out the protocols to minimize a reaction. The key is to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” states Donna Gleason, CPDT, CDBC, who has extensive experience with canine response work to trauma situations.

If your pet is in a stressful situation, especially if it is a therapy or trauma dog, pay attention to them. Look for signs of stress and remove them from the stressful situation.
Signs of stress include: lip and nose licking, yawning, panting, ears pinned back or to side of head, avoidance behaviors such as inattention, looking or turning away and excessive sniffing, shaking, low tail set, excessive shedding, whining and other vocalizations, dilated eyes, refusing food and treats, and leaning back with weight on rear legs.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is as acute and disabling for pets as it is for people. Like any chronic medical condition, early detection and intervention play a huge part in maximizing function and recovery.

Owner and stylist of Pawsitively Pretty Mobile Grooming Salon in Danbury, Mary Oquendo ACM, RM, is one of only 13 Certified Master Pet Tech Instructors worldwide. She is a Reiki master and certified crystal therapist. For more information, visit See ad, page 53.

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