Emotionally Traumatized Dogs/Cats: How to Help Them!
Signs of Emotional Trauma in Cats and Dogs
While most owners of a fearful rescued animal assume it’s been abused, relatively few pets actually are.
The reality is that many pets with perfectly adequate and loving backgrounds develop fears, anxieties and phobias based on lack of proper socialization as a puppy or kitten.
Like humans, traumatized cats and dogs can develop fear and anxiety disorders. Dogs and Cats may attempt to escape or flee situations when frightened ~ they may even become aggressive if forced to interact, forced out of a hiding spot, may freeze, fidget, pace or try jumping up or paw at their owners.
Trauma can also manifest as shaking, panting, yawning, hiding, urination and/or defecation when situations trigger their phobias.
Genetics can also be a contributing factor. New evidence suggests that behavior consistent with trauma may be inherited through DNA. Any animal is the sum total of its breeding and upbringing so a dog or cat whose parents were fearful or who were mistreated or injured may pass along fearful tendencies to its offspring.
Living with a Traumatized Cat or Dog
A traumatized animal has a higher likelihood of becoming re-traumatized if she or he re-encounters major stressors ~ so understanding your pet’s triggers is beneficial in helping prevent episodes.
This does not mean that your pet should be forced to live an ultra-protected life, but that major foreseeable stresses should be avoided as much as possible. For example, a person with a dog that is anxious when left alone might avoid putting the dog in a kennel when she goes away on vacation ~ instead consider having a friend care for your dog.
The most important factor to understand that exposure to a trigger without careful planning will make things worse.
Another common misperception is that showering an animal with love is sufficient. ‘My dog/cat just needs to be loved’ is a common statement expressed and believed. Many dogs who exhibit extreme fear of people are not interested in interacting with them ~ so it’s not as simple as giving the pet love and attention.
Never use techniques that frighten an animal like shaking cans, spray bottles, use prong collars or anything that shocks the animal. That can damage their behavior even more and even trigger aggression.
Set Up a ‘Safe Space’ for Them
A sensitive, fearful pet will benefit from setting up a safe space for them ~ in fact let them choose the location. If they like hiding in your closet ~ don’t create the safe space in the living room.
Important for you to know: Do not mess with your pet when they are in their safe space. If they need medications or its time for a ‘walk’ or other interventions ~ you should entice them to come out on their own, voluntarily ~ maybe offer a ‘treat’ to coax them to come to you.
Cats tend to prefer spaces that are higher up. It’s helpful if this hiding spot is comfortable, easily accessible and provides the cat with the ability to hide his or her head.
Dogs on the other hand may naturally seek enclosed areas like closets or a dog crate. It’s important that their safe space be a place the dog chooses to go to on their own and it’ll be important for you to not to force them to be confined.
Treating Emotional Trauma in Pets
Treatment generally centers on desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitization is the process of exposing your dog or cat in a safe, non-threatening environment to a low level of the feared stimulus. Slowly and gently Increase the exposure to whatever traumatizes them, always at a level that they can handle and gradually over time increase the level and/or length of time. It can help. Through this process your pet will learn that the presence of the stimulus is not followed by any unpleasant consequences thus desensitizing the animal to the stimulus.
Behaviorists often pair desensitization with counter-conditioning, a process that changes the meaning of something bad to something positive ~ like giving the a treat that they love. It can lead to a positive reaction vs. the opposite. In dogs, desensitization is usually accomplished with something that the dog likes, such as treats, praise, or play.
Sometimes the fear can be so intense, pets need a little pharmaceutical help to get started with their retraining. Depending on the situation and intensity of symptoms, a vet may prescribe drugs to complement behavioral work, reduce fear, and improve quality of life.
Also understand that first attempts at treatment are not always successful.
The important thing is to not give up. Stop and try again another day, gently and with care and consideration until a positive, no matter how tiny is noticed ~ a baby step in the right direction.
Patience, understanding and love can overcome and go a long way into helping your pet overcome their old trauma triggers.
Good luck ~ its worth helping them. They give so much back to us.