Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that involves going through a traumatic experience and developing symptoms out of that experience, such as nightmares and flashbacks. ¹ While this condition is common among people, some may wonder “can dogs have PTSD?”
The simple answer is yes. However, how dogs develop PTSD is more complicated than initially meets the eye.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into dogs and PTSD, and everything you need to know. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
How Can Dogs Develop PTSD?
You may assume your pup can develop PTSD from simple discipline. For example, if you’ve ever had a dog chew up your child’s favorite toy, you may have given him/her a quick whack as a means of discipline. But such simple measures will not cause PTSD.
So, what causes PTSD in dogs? Your pup is much more likely to PTSD from the following experiences:
- Being abandoned
- Emotional or physical abuse
- Losing a caregiver
- Military combat
- Natural disaster (i.e. hurricane, earthquake, etc.)
- Negative interactions with other animals
- Serious accident
What are the Signs of PTSD in Dogs?
Since dogs can develop other forms of anxiety, it can be difficult to determine whether or not your pup is struggling with PTSD. Furthermore, different dogs will have varying reactions to PTSD, making it difficult to devise a single set of symptoms.
If your dog struggles with separation anxiety or PTSD, you may see the following: ²
- Destructive behavior
- Inappropriate howling, barking, or whining
- Indoor defecation
If your dog struggles with stress due to PTSD, they may show the following signs:
- Crouching low to the ground
- Ears pinned back
- Tucked tail
Other traumatized dog symptoms include:
- Clinging to you in fear
- Unwarranted aggression
Some owners aren’t aware of whether or not their dog went through previous traumatic experiences. In such cases, diagnosis can be difficult. However, if you are aware of a traumatic experience, be sure to bring this up to your vet.
How to Treat a Dog with PTSD
If your dog is diagnosed with PTSD, you vet will likely recommend a form of behavioral training known as systemic desensitization. ³
Similar to exposure therapy, this treatment gradually exposes your dog to what brings them fear. For example, if your dog has a fear of specific loud noises, they’ll initially be exposed this noise at a soft volume. Over the course of the therapy, this volume will gradually increase.
This treatment is proactive in the sense that good behavior is rewarded with treats. Therefore, your dog will eventually connotate the noise with treats rather than anxiety.
Alongside this, your dog also may undergo:
- Daily exercise
- Play sessions
- Positive reinforcement training
The timeframe of treatment varies between dogs – largely depending on personality and severity of PTSD. It’s important to maintain treatment as long as possible as it’s giving your pup the best outcome to living a long, healthier life.
Other Ways to Manage Fear in Dogs
When dealing with fear in dogs, you may believe you need to treat them like children. In other words, when your dog is experiencing fear and aggression, you may meet this with comfort (pets, kisses, etc.). However, this gives your dog the impression that fear and aggression is okay – making it unlikely they’ll change their behavior.
In order to overcome these behaviors, it’s best to simply ignore them. For example, if your dog is barking at strangers, the best thing to do is not say anything and pull them away. Alongside this, it may also be in your interest to practice commands and offer treats when met with good behavior.
Dog owners need to understand that their pup views them as a leader. Therefore, our actions tell the dog so much about how we expect them to handle themselves.
Other Emotional Problems Your Dog May Experience
Even if your dog isn’t experiencing PTSD, they may still struggle with anxiety or aggression. The most common causes of these behaviors include:
- Car rides
Simply put, some dogs are just naturally fearful. However, in most cases, this fear does spawn from an event that occurred to them when they were young.
Regardless, the above mentioned treatment methods are effective for dogs with any form of anxiety.
Can dogs have PTSD? The answer is yes, but since a dog cannot vocalize their problems, it can be difficult to diagnose. For this reason, we recommend speaking to a veterinarian before coming to your own conclusions.
If your dog does struggle with PTSD, there are treatment options available. While the effectiveness of these treatments vary from dog to dog, there’s been plenty of evidence concerning overall improvement.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can rescue dogs have PTSD?
Yes – any dog, regardless of training, can develop or have developed PTSD.
Can dogs have PTSD from abuse?
Abuse in dogs (especially at a young age) is one of the most common causes of PTSD.
Can dogs have PTSD from fireworks?
Fireworks are unlikely to cause PTSD. However, fireworks may trigger PTSD in some dogs.
Do dogs remember traumatic events?
Yes – dogs can experience flashbacks due to environmental triggers.
Still have questions about whether or not dogs can struggle with PTSD?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
² Dovepress: Canine separation anxiety: strategies for treatment and management
³ Animals (MDPI): Effect of a Standardized Four-Week Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning Training Program on Pre-Existing Veterinary Fear in Companion Dogs