How to Heal an Emotionally Traumatized Pet (2023)

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Years later, people who have experienced traumatic events can develop symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Fortunately, there are treatments to help them heal.

But what about traumatized pets? After all, cats and dogs are sentient beings and can be affected by poor home situations, abusive environments, and neglect.

Research on emotional trauma in pets is lacking, mainly due to the language barrier. "The animal cannot tell us what happened to it early in life and whether its fears now stem from a traumatic experience or something else," says Dr. Frank McMillan, a research veterinarian and director of wellness studies at Best Friends. Animal Society in Kanab, Utah.

However, there is help. Veterinarians and behaviorists treat animals suffering from fear and anxiety caused by trauma.

Signs of emotional trauma in dogs and cats

Like traumatized people, dogs and cats can develop anxiety and anxiety disorders, says Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a board-certified behavioral veterinarian from the University of Illinois, Chicago College of Veterinary Medicine. "Dogs and cats may attempt to escape or flee from situations that frighten them, they may become aggressive when interacting with them or when forced out of hiding, they may freeze or exhibit avoidance behaviors such as hiding or standing still and walking , jump or walk unsteadily . repeatedly scratch their owners.”

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Trauma can also manifest as "shaking, hiding, urinating and/or defecation when the trigger tries to interact, howling, pacing, excessive vocalization and gasping," says Pia Silvani, director of behavioral rehabilitation at the ASPCA Center's Behavioral Rehabilitation Program .

If you're wondering if your pet needs to go to therapy to explore past issues, the answer is no. dr Sarah Wooten, a Colorado veterinarian, says the type of trauma suffered isn't as crucial as what the animal learns from the experience.

However, these behaviors aren't always the result of emotional trauma, says Dr. Liz Stelow, service director of the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital.

"While most owners of a fearful rescue pet assume they have been abused, relatively few animals do," says Stelow. "The reality is that many pets with perfectly appropriate love stories develop fears, anxieties, and phobias because they don't socialize to a particular stimulus when they are young."

Genetics can also contribute. New evidence suggests that behaviors associated with trauma can be inherited through DNA, says Dr. Terri Bright, director of behavioral services at MSPCA-Angell in Boston. "Every animal is the sum of its upbringing and upbringing, so a dog or cat whose parents were fearful or who have been abused or injured can pass on fearful tendencies to their offspring."

Treatment of emotional trauma in pets

Emotional trauma in pets has not been extensively studied, according to our experts. "Right now, we're using techniques designed to help animals overcome their specific emotional problems, whether it's fear, anxiety, or depression, without knowing whether that emotional state is the result of trauma or other causes," says McMillan, whose research focuses on the mental health and emotional well-being of animals that have suffered psychological trauma.

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Treatment generally focuses on desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization is the process of exposing the animal to low levels of the feared stimulus in a safe, non-threatening environment. "Exposure builds up very gradually over time," explains McMillan. "Through this process, the animal learns that the presence of the stimulus is not followed by unpleasant consequences that 'stupefy' the animal to the stimulus."

Behaviorists often associate desensitization with counterconditioning, a process that changes the meaning of something bad to something positive. "It's the same method as when dentists give the child stickers or toys after a visit," he says. “The goal of counterconditioning is that, over time, the feared stimulus is not only accepted—that is the goal of desensitization—but actually wanted.”

"Harry Potter can help us understand desensitization," adds Wooten. "Remember the scene where the students banished the bogeyman with the 'Ridiculous!' spell? That turns something bad into something funny.” In dogs, desensitization usually occurs with something the dog enjoys, such as treats, praise, or play.

Sometimes the fear can be so intense that pets need a little pharmaceutical help to start retraining. Depending on the situation and the intensity of the symptoms, a veterinarian can prescribe medications to supplement behavioral work, reduce anxiety, and improve quality of life, McMillan says. (Some of the same medications, including antidepressants, that are prescribed for humans are also givenGatosmiDogsbecause of fear.)

effectiveness of treatment

"Treatments can be very effective, as we saw at the ASPCA Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation," says Silvani, a certified professional dog trainer. Most dogs enter the program with extreme anxiety stemming from a lack of proper socialization or from living in deplorable environments, she says. "Time and patience are key."

Desensitization and counterconditioning is an effective treatment for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, Ballantyne says. However, a strong warning is in order. “If this technique is used incorrectly, it can increase the animal's fear. This exercise should only be performed under the supervision of a behavioral veterinarian or certified animal behaviorist.”

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Also understand that the first attempts at treatment are not always successful. "The important part of these treatments is adjusting them as needed until they're effective," says Stelow, who is a board-certified behavioral veterinarian. “It's not easy to find the right drug or combination of drugs the first time. And sometimes desensitization and counterconditioning can be accelerated to the point where they become ineffective. But changing the plan can lead to great success.”

And because we work with biological beings, treatment doesn't always produce perfect results. "In most cases, the emotional difficulties can be overcome, but in some cases the psychological and physiological changes are so severe that the animal may only partially respond to treatment," says McMillan, who is a board-certified small animal medicine doctor. animal welfare.

Living with a traumatized cat or dog

A traumatized animal is more likely to be traumatized again when exposed to major stressors, says McMillan. Therefore, understanding your partner's triggers is helpful in preventing episodes.

"This does not mean that the pet should be forced to live an ultra-sheltered life, but rather that large foreseeable stresses should be avoided as much as possible," he stresses. "For example, a person who has a dog that becomes anxious when left alone might avoid putting the dog in a kennel while on vacation and instead have a friend groom it."

The most important factor to understand, Stelow says, is that exposure to a trigger without careful planning will make the situation worse. "This is called 'sensitization' and not 'desensitization'. Even though it's the American style, the mascot won't get over it with more attention."

Another common misconception is that bathing an animal with love is enough, says Silvani. "'She just needs to be loved' is a common statement we hear. Many dogs that show extreme fear of humans aren't interested in interacting with them, so giving the pet love and attention isn't as easy."

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Never use techniques that startle an animal, says Bright, who is a board-certified behavior analyst (and certified applied animal behaviorist). new bond with the owner and make the animal aggressive.

Create a safe space

All animals can benefit from a safe location, Stelow says, adding that the animal must choose the location. "If he likes to hide in your closet, don't make a safe spot in the living room. Also, no one is allowed to "mess" with the pet when it is in the safe area. If he needs medication, for a walk or some other procedure, he should be asked to leave voluntarily, perhaps for a reward."

Cats prefer higher rooms, says Ballantyne. "It helps if this hiding place is comfortable and easily accessible for the cat and allows the cat to hide its head."

Dogs, on the other hand, may naturally seek out enclosed areas like closets or kennels, Ballantyne says. "It's important that the safe place is a place that the dog will go to alone and will never be forced to be confined."

While we cannot penetrate an animal's psyche to determine the root cause of suffering, treatment offers hope. However, there is still room for growth. "Our best treatments have yet to be developed," says McMillan.


How do you help an emotionally traumatized dog? ›

Here's how to help your dog heal from trauma, according to experts.
  1. Keep Your Pup Safe. Carl Court/Getty Images News/Getty Images. ...
  2. Set Up A Comforting Spot. ...
  3. Be Patient. ...
  4. Use Food To Bond. ...
  5. Let Them Keep Some Control. ...
  6. Get On Their Level. ...
  7. Ask For Help.
Jun 17, 2019

How can I help my cat with emotional trauma? ›

If you suspect your cat is suffering from a trauma, establishing a calm safe environment for them is critical. This can include pheromone or essential oil therapy in diffusers and playing calming music to muffle loud noises to create a peaceful atmosphere.

How long does it take a dog to recover from trauma? ›

Acute post traumatic stress disorder is the most common form of PTSD seen in dogs. Acute reactions begin occurring directly after the traumatizing incident or incidents and generally subside within three months.

What are signs of trauma in dogs? ›

Here are some symptoms we can look for that MIGHT indicate trauma in a dog: Anorexia, won't eliminate, pacing, inability to sleep, hyper-vigilance, extreme fear, being easily startled, outbursts of aggression or rage that have no predictable pattern, and refusal to play.

Can a traumatized dog be fixed? ›

Treatments can be very effective, as we have seen at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center,” says Silvani, a certified professional dog trainer. Most dogs enter the program with extreme fear stemming from lack of proper socialization or having lived in deplorable environments, she says.

Can a traumatized dog recover? ›

Most dog owners want their pooch to live their best, happiest life possible. And, while it takes time, most pups CAN get past their traumatic past.

Can a cat be permanently traumatized? ›

There's a chance your cat could have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they have experienced one or more traumatic instances throughout their lives. Cats with PTSD can exhibit unusual changes in behavior as well as significant distress related to their disorder.

How long does it take for a cat to recover from a traumatic event? ›

Recovery of Soft Tissue Trauma in Cats

It usually takes about one to two weeks for your cat to recover from a soft tissue injury, but you should restrict activity until several days after limping is gone.

How do I rebuild my dog's confidence? ›

To build your dog's confidence in a more general way, provide him with enrichment activities and relationship-based training. Simply feeding your dog via food puzzles and getting him involved in nose work (which, by the way, is fun for both dogs and their people) can make him more confident.

Can animals heal trauma? ›

Emerging research on animal-assisted therapy has demonstrated the possible benefits of companion animals for individuals who have experienced difficult and traumatic events.

How traumatic is it for a dog to change owners? ›

Changing owners can be so traumatic for dogs, says the American Kennel Club, that they can stop eating, lose weight, lose interest in physical activity, and exhibit symptoms of canine depression. That's why any decision to re-home dogs must be taken seriously.

What causes emotional trauma dogs? ›

“We don't always know what may cause PTSD in dogs, but some potential causes are military or police work, being a bait or fighting dog, being raised in a puppy mill, severe abuse, living as a stray after being abandoned, trauma from a disaster (flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, explosion), or being attacked by other ...

Do dogs get traumatized easily? ›

Just like people, cats and dogs can experience fearful events that can have a traumatic impact on them. They're sentient beings, using the power of their senses and consciousness to observe and interpret the world around them.

What is brain trauma in a dog? ›

The dog may have seizures, some evidence of trauma on the head or other part of the body, bleeding into the eyes, or bleeding from the nose or ears. A dog with brain trauma may have difficulty regulating his body temperature causing either fever or a body temperature that is too low. The heart may beat very slowly.

Can an abused dog ever recover? ›

It can take months or even years for formerly abused dogs to recover and go from a reclusive and scared pooch to a trusting and loving companion. However, you also need to temper your expectations because in most cases, you can never achieve a full resolution of the issues.

What is the body language of an abused dog? ›

Understanding Behavior in Pets That May Have Been Abused

Making direct eye contact, leaning over them, and reaching for the top of a dog or cat's head or neck can all be perceived as challenging or threatening gestures.

Do dogs sleep after trauma? ›

When dogs are injured, they will tend to sleep more so that they can conserve their energy, which helps to mend injured tissue. If you can, fix up a spare room where your dog can rest and relax without too many other people or pets bothering them.

Can cats get emotionally hurt? ›

Famously independent, sometimes falsely assumed to be immune to feelings, cats are in truth super-sensitive to emotions, sound, and stress. Perhaps because felines lack the eager-to-please openness of their canine colleagues, humans overlook the big and small ways they can break a cat's spirit.

Can cats heal heartbreak? ›

Cats are also good companions for emotional upsets. A cat's purr increases feelings of contentment, boosts the immune system, and helps regulate internal emotional states. The physical benefits of a cat's purr combined with the positive aspects of having a pet can help you heal from emotional upsets in life.

How do you know if a cat was abused? ›

The following are likely signs of animal abuse:
  • Tucked tail, flinches at human contact.
  • Unexplained fractures or limping.
  • Unprovoked aggression, whining, or whimpering.
  • Overly submissive (rolling onto back, tail tucked, urinating)
  • Suddenly avoiding any physical contact.
  • Attempts to bite or scratch when petted.
Sep 6, 2018

Do animals remember trauma? ›

Commonly thought of as a human response to danger, injury and loss, there is growing evidence that many animals show lasting changes in their behaviour after traumatic events.

What does stress look like in cats? ›

Signs of stressed cats can include: becoming more withdrawn or hiding more than usual. becoming less tolerant of people. hesitating or becoming reluctant to use the litter tray, go through the cat flap or sit on your lap.

How do I make my cat feel safe? ›

Ways to make your cat feel safe at home
  1. Stick to a routine. Few things please a cat more than routine. ...
  2. They need their own space. ...
  3. Always try and remain calm. ...
  4. Introduce new things slowly. ...
  5. Use their sense of smell. ...
  6. Provide plenty of physical and mental stimulation. ...
  7. Ensure they have easy access to litter boxes.

How do you massage a stressed cat? ›

Stroking involves running the hands with light to medium pressure over the cat from the head to the tail and down each of the limbs. By opening the massage with long, light-touch stroking, we can help relax the cat and set the stage for the rest of the massage.

Can you ever gain a dogs trust back? ›

Some dogs require more time because they may be traumatized, but with patience, most dogs will eventually trust you back.

What does PTSD look like in dogs? ›

Symptoms of PTSD in dogs can include: panic, panting, fearfulness, being timid and clinging to their owners, aggressive reactions in dogs that were never aggressive before, depression, and hyper-vigilance (especially for working dogs and guard breeds).

Do dogs remember traumatic events? ›

Dogs get flashbacks, often from environmental triggers that remind them of a traumatic event. Dogs with PTSD are affected differently by these flashbacks.

Do animals get emotionally hurt? ›

Mammals share the same nervous system, neurochemicals, perceptions, and emotions, all of which are integrated into the experience of pain, says Marc Bekoff, evolutionary biologist and author. Whether mammals feel pain like we do is unknown, Bekoff says—but that doesn't mean they don't experience it.

How do animals get rid of trauma? ›

Unlike humans, wild animals find a safe place, experience the trauma from start to finish and their nervous system discharges the fright.

Do animals shake off trauma? ›

In the animal world, animals “shake off” the freeze response caused by a life threat. When animals suffer trauma, it has been documented that they will literally shake it off, which helps the animal discharge the energy of the traumatic event.

What is the 3 3 3 rule dog? ›

Whether you rescue an older dog or a puppy, a lot of dogs tend to follow the 3-3-3 rule when getting acclimated: 3 days of feeling overwhelmed and nervous. 3 weeks of settling in. 3 months of building trust and bonding with you.

Would my dog be happier with someone else? ›

yes and no. Dogs are social animals and usually happier around other dogs, but a second dog will never be a substitute for inattentive, absent or too busy owners.

How long will a dog grieve for its owner? ›

Every dog is different. Some dogs may overcome their grief within 2 months, while others may take 10 years or more. Some dogs even need medication or behavioral training to combat symptoms of grief and depression. The important thing is to love them through it, no matter how long it takes.

Can a dog be emotionally abused? ›


The forms of maltreatment to which animals may be subjected have extensive parallels with the forms seen in children. Animals may be neglected or abused, physically, sexually, and emotionally.

Can dogs be emotionally hurt? ›

The short answer to this question is yes, you can hurt your dog's feelings. Dogs spend their entire lives being surrounded by their humans. As dog owners, how you act towards your dogs leaves a significant impact, whether emotionally or physically.

Will my dog be scared forever? ›

Most fearful dogs gradually improve with time, training, and trust. But they won't likely become outgoing if they're naturally nervous or shy. There is hope! You can learn to manage their fears with training, patience, and time.

How do you treat head trauma in dogs? ›

Head trauma is an emergency in veterinary patients. After rapid evaluation, pain medication, gentle handling, IV fluid support, and supplemental oxygen are the most critical things the veterinary team can provide to help facilitate recovery.

What are the long term effects of head trauma in dogs? ›

Swelling in the brain from head trauma that is left untreated can lead to seizures, coma, and even death. If left untreated, head trauma can become fatal. If your dog sustains serious trauma to the head, contact a veterinarian to assess your dog's condition. Protect yourself and your pet.

What are symptoms of a brain bleed in a dog? ›

Taken to the extreme, this includes loss of consciousness and coma. Poor coordination: Such as staggering, walking in circles, or bumping into walls. Flicking eyes: Known as 'nystagmus', eyes that flick from side to side can be a sign of inner ear disease or a brain disorder.

What are the warning signs your dog is crying for help? ›

If your dog is in pain they may:
  • Show signs of agitation.
  • Cry out, yelp or growl.
  • Be sensitive to touch or resent normal handling.
  • Become grumpy and snap at you.
  • Be quiet, less active, or hide.
  • Limp or be reluctant to walk.
  • Become depressed and stop eating.
  • Have changes to the breathing, and an increased heart rate.
Jun 10, 2017

What dog breeds have the most anxiety? ›

The dog breeds that are more likely to have this problem are the German Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Jack Russell Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bichon Frise, Toy Poodle, Labrador Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, and German Shorthaired Pointer.

What are the first signs of stress in a dog? ›

Stress signs to look for include whale eye (when dogs reveal the whites of their eyes), tucked ears, tucked tail, raised hackles, lip-licking, yawning, and panting. Your dog might also avoid eye contact or look away.

How do you help an abused dog recover? ›

Several useful tips to help a new pet adapt to a new life include: Learn to read the pet's body language and give them plenty of space and room to heal.
This includes:
  1. Meals at set times.
  2. Regular potty breaks and walks (for dogs)
  3. Daily litterbox cleaning.
  4. Regular exercise and play sessions.
Jan 26, 2018

Did I traumatize my cat? ›

How do I know if my cat is traumatized? If you find your cat exhibiting abnormal behavior, and notice marked changes in their eating habits, sleeping habits, or affection or aggression towards you, this might be a sign of PTSD in your cat.

How do traumatized dogs act? ›

Symptoms of PTSD in dogs can include: panic, panting, fearfulness, being timid and clinging to their owners, aggressive reactions in dogs that were never aggressive before, depression, and hyper-vigilance (especially for working dogs and guard breeds).

How do you get a scared dog to trust you again? ›

7 Ways to Bond with a Shy Dog
  1. Get to Know the Dog on Their Time. ...
  2. Take a Walk. ...
  3. Create a Comfortable Environment. ...
  4. Use Food to Encourage Closeness. ...
  5. Bring Some Toys into the Mix. ...
  6. Try Pheromones. ...
  7. Brush Your Dog.
Aug 21, 2017

How do you calm a hypervigilant dog? ›

Dogs that are hypervigilant may hide or pace the house scanning for threats. It's also not uncommon for dogs to bark or whine while stressed. If your dog is acting hypervigilant, give them the space they need to calm down. Petting or trying to talk to them in soothing tones may only upset them more.

How do you bond with an abused dog? ›

Adopting an Abused Dog
  1. Give him some space. If you do decide to adopt an abused dog, be prepared to let him set the pace. ...
  2. Be very alert to his reactions. ...
  3. Don't reach down to pet him. ...
  4. Know that certain things may frighten him. ...
  5. Use positive reinforcement instead of negative.
Dec 5, 2018


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