How does trauma affect animals?
Today we're talking about the intersection of human anxiety-related psychological disorders and that of our animal pals. Our understanding of how these conditions, including PTSD, relate to behavior in animals is still developing.
If you're interested in further reading on the topic of today's post, you should pick up a copy of Dr. McConnell's exquisite memoir The Education of Will. It's our top pick for any person who has ever loved a troubled animal, or any troubled person who has ever loved a dog, or actually any human person. For a thorough--and we do mean thorough--walk-through of trauma and the developing mind, take a look at The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog. Content warning for both books: there's triggers. We're talking about trauma here, guys.
Human psychology differentiates between “big T” Trauma and “small t” trauma. “Big T” trauma includes those life-threatening experiences that we normally think of in the context of PTSD, including military combat, natural disasters, accidents, abuse, etc. “Small t” trauma, or “adverse life experiences” (Drs. Felitti, Anda and colleagues, 1998) or “developmentally-disruptive experiences”, by Maureen Kitchur, (2001, 2005) are adverse life experiences that were not necessarily life-threatening, but stressful enough to actually change how the developing nervous system was forming. Examples of human-specific “little t” trauma includes bullying, gaslighting, verbal abuse, public humiliation, loss of close attachments, and the like. When “small t” trauma is repeated, acute, cumulative, and/or occurs during childhood and the victim lacks social support networks, the likelihood of emotional or behavioral problems--even PTSD--is very high.
As you can imagine, both of these types of trauma are common. Both can result in a wide range of problems, including PTSD, phobias, anxiety, and depression. PTSD resulting from “small t” negative experiences in humans is called “complex PTSD” or “C-PTSD” in the psychological literature, and can be just as debilitating and pervasive as PTSD resulting from life threatening circumstances. A simple way of thinking about these two disorders is that PTSD results from acute stressful trauma, whereas complex PTSD results from long-term, low-intensity trauma.
Science is just beginning to recognize PTSD as a very real disorder in dogs. As with human PTSD, canine PTSD (also called “C-PTSD”, confusingly) was first discovered in military working dogs, such as bomb-detection canines.
As with humans, only some of the canine units returning from combat seem to be affected, even if they all were exposed to similar stressful circumstances. This points to the important role of a genetic component, which has also been indicated in humans as a predisposing factor. This is one of the primary reasons why aversive training methods can be so detrimental--one animal’s training is another animal’s trauma… and you may not know which until it’s too late or you've gone too far. There's no denying that some aversive methods do work for some individual animals, maybe even the majority in certain breeds--however, positive reinforcement works for all animals and won't cause deeper fear-based psychological issues that you'll spend the animal's lifetime trying to navigate.
The symptoms of PTSD in dogs are parallel to those observed in humans: sudden changes in behavior or demeanor--often aggressive changes. Enhanced startle response. Unexplained, excessive, or sudden vocalizations. Waking up from a stone-cold sleep with barking, lunging, growling, etc. Often the human guardians have no idea what the trigger is, although sometimes they do. As with human PTSD, sometimes the trigger generalizes to completely innocuous stimuli, either suddenly or gradually. These behavior changes can be hard to understand and even harder to mediate.
Symptoms like these can also be caused by poor early socialization, but the resulting behaviors can be just as frightening and severe as those caused by “big T” trauma. Likewise, the treatments are similar. The behavior effects of long-term, lower-grade stress--trauma with the "little t"--in dogs and other animals are well-known in studies of shelter animals, although these potentially life-long behavioral effects don’t have a special name yet (CC-PTSD, perhaps?).
There’s not much science out there on anxiety-related disorders in other companion animals besides dogs and horses, but anyone who has spent much time with an animal can tell you that most of them are capable of both having scary or stressful experiences and developing aggressive or nuisance behaviors that are likely trauma-related. It stands to reason that any species with a limbic system and the capacity for learning could be affected. I’ve personally seen the PTSD-like behavioral syndrome in (many) parrots and (many, many!) dogs, rabbits, cats, ferrets, and even a sheep.
In a future post, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of treatment approaches. Do you have a reactive or fearful animal in your life? Tell us about it in the comments!