Pets Suffer From PTSD, Too

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!

Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.

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5 thoughts on “Pets Suffer From PTSD, Too

  1. Thank you for writing this. Fireworks are extremely stressful for most dogs. Our hounds with their sensitive ears,find it terrifying. It makes me crazy that people bring their dogs to see the fireworks. Please don’t do this to them!

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  2. What a wonderful post. Your poor, sweet kitty. Reading about her “meow-scream” brought tears to my eyes. How wonderful that she found her way to you!

    When you said the word for “cat” in what you call her “first language,” do you mean that she started her life living in a home where the people spoke a language other than English? I suspect that our Cattle Dog, Lady, who had PTSD so bad, also came from a home where English was not the primary language. I never spoke anything but English to her, but the way she responded to some of our bilingual friends made me wonder.

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    1. Yeah. Obviously I try to be careful mentioning that, since I never want to give the impression that she was in that situation *because* the neighborhood she was found in primarily spoke another language, especially as she was found and rescued by someone else from that same neighborhood. There’s so much hate in America these days that you never can be too careful not to accidentally justify someone else’s. But, whenever anyone speaks that language around her – including one of my best friends, who tried *so hard* to win her trust afterwards – she freaks. It was/is bad enough that we always feel terrible that we have to tell pet sitting agencies about it. If she’s re-traumatized she’ll tear her own hair out and other self-injurious behaviors if we’re not there, so it’s a potential safety issue if we don’t mention it. We’re always worried they’ll think *we* have the problem. It’s kind of mortifying, honestly. But, the one agency that must have decided we were making it up learned quickly and ended up having to apologize for thinking the worst of *us.* So, yeah, she definitely recognizes other languages and is afraid of one. She’s ridiculously smart – often too smart for her own good in general. We had to put her on a kidney safe diet very early because she also has multiple allergies and a digestive system that suffered early trauma. We tried to do the “slowly mix the foods and keep increasing the proportion of the new one until the cat accepts it.” Nope. She learned to distinguish the difference in shapes and we’d wake up to find she had used her little paw to literally pick out every morsel of the new food and throw it on the floor. We finally had to buy a bag of every possible safe food and just let her sample them til we found one she’d eat, as she can always tell the shapes apart. She has learned every possible English word for “trip” we can think of and – despite always having a pet sitter to care for her – will hoard her food in little piles around the house unless we put out a huge six gallon drum that is clear enough to see the food inside. It’s like after all these years she *still* doesn’t trust she won’t be abandoned /starves again unless she can *see* the evidence. The only vaguely helpful trauma symptom she shows is a deathly fear of leaving the house. We had a door lock break once and came home to find it standing open. Most cats wouldn’t be able to resist going to explore, but after a frantic search, we found ours wedged behind a suitcase on the top shelf of our closet, as far from the door as possible. She’s microchipped, but pretty confident we’ll never lose her.

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