It is almost July 4th, a day that lives in infamy for pets across America, and animal shelters and animal control agencies are gearing up to handle the holiday’s substantially higher rates of lost pets as a result. Be safe, pet owners, and make sure your doors and gates are securely locked before you leave for the festivities! Also, please give your cats and dogs a little extra TLC today!
Fireworks shouldn’t cause more than short-term anxiety and fear for most pets, but pets can also suffer from more severe mental health issues, including PTSD. Service dogs returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan show signs of combat-related PTSD, and domestic pets show “civilian” PTSD after natural disasters, abuse or abandonment. I first learned about pet PTSD when we adopted our own kitty. She had been severely abused and then abandoned before we got her.
At first, she would tear her own hair out when my partner and I left for too long, and she would “meow-scream” – that’s the only way I can describe it – and hide when anyone who looked too much like the person who had mistreated her came to visit. It was awkward, to say the least, when some of my close friends came to visit. At the advice of a wonderful vet, we put her on a low-dose kitty SSRI, paid extra for pet sitters who would stay and hold her (in addition to just feeding her and changing her box) when we had to leave for multiple days, and she eventually calmed down. (She still hides when certain people come over, unfortunately, but she no longer shows the other trauma behaviors.)
She’s a senior kitty now. It never occurred to my partner or I that she would still have hidden triggers. However, my partner and I have recently been using Duolingo. At one point, we discussed how many words cats are supposed to be able to understand. Nobody seems to have great data, though everybody quotes numbers (usually between 100-250), for dogs. My partner commented that a quarter of our cat’s vocabulary probably consists entirely of words for her – various nicknames, synonyms like “cat/kitty” and terms of endearment. I replied that, when we included words for cats that she was probably exposed to in her early years in her “first language,” the final percentage was probably much higher. In the process, I used the word for “cat” in that first language. I was treated to a meow-scream I hadn’t heard in years (though at least she didn’t flee from me.)
I felt horrible. If anyone ever tries to tell me that people suffering from PTSD should “just get over it,” I’m going to remind them that even domestic animals suffer from PTSD. It has been the human equivalent of 40 years since anyone spoke that word to her before hurting her, but my cat apparently still recognized it. It makes sense to me. Learning to recognize signs of danger from creatures 10 times her size seems like an extremely evolutionarily adaptive use of a cat’s limited vocabulary.
If even cats, though, can permanently encode “threat words” and show signs of distress years later, why is anyone still shocked when humans remember, too? Stay safe, use fireworks responsibly, and be there for the loved ones in your life with PTSD – especially any veterans – this long holiday weekend!