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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Post-Traumatic Stress In Dogs

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a well recognized phenomenon in people.  Though most commonly thought of in relation to military personnel (and at one time called "shell shocked" during my father's generation), this problem can affect anybody who has been through a sufficciently traumatic event.  But humans are not the only ones who can suffer after trauma.

Recently I've seen a few articles on this subject in dogs, specifically military dogs (for example, see this article from the New York Times).  As someone with a strong interest in animal behavior, I found myself really thinking about it.  Apparently it's a growing concern in dogs serving in the military.  From the article....

By some estimates, more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD. Of those, about half are likely to be retired from service, Dr. Burghardt said.

It may sound a bit strange to people, but it makes perfect sense to me.  Every vet knows that our patients often quickly develop an aversion to the office, often showing signs of anxiety as soon as they pull into the parking lot.  Formerly friendly dogs can develop fear-related agression towards veterinarians after the patient has undergone extensive and potentially painful treatment after a serious injury or illness.  We also commonly see phobias and anxiety develop after a traumatic experience.  For example, a dog has a ladder fall near them noisily during a storm and from that point on is afraid of thunder.  Or a cat develops an aversion to the litterbox because it had pain when defecating and the cat associated the pain with the litterbox.

All of that makes sense, right?  So it surprised me that the article mentions that the topic is being debated.

Though veterinarians have long diagnosed behavioral problems in animals, the concept of canine PTSD is only about 18 months old, and still being debated. But it has gained vogue among military veterinarians, who have been seeing patterns of troubling behavior among dogs exposed to explosions, gunfire and other combat-related violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Frankly, as a behaviorist (though not a specialist), I'm surprised that we haven't recognized this problem sooner.  It's a well known behavioral principle that traumatic events can lead to future anxiety when presented with similar circumstances.  Perhaps the difference is in the current state of military affairs, with more improvised explosive devices and urban warfare than in the past, presenting dogs with situations that may more closely resemble their home life and environment.

Treatment is possible, and the techniques appear similar to what we use in treating any phobia or aversion.  I've used similar methods many times in storm phobias, and desensitization techniques are used to train hunting dogs not to be afraid of the gunshot.

More serious cases will receive what Dr. Burghardt calls “desensitization counterconditioning,” which entails exposing the dog at a safe distance to a sight or sound that might set off a reaction — a gunshot, a loud bang or a vehicle, for instance. If the dog does not react, it is rewarded, and the trigger — “the spider in a glass box,” Dr. Burghardt calls it — is moved progressively closer.

Some dogs are also treated with the same medications used to fight panic attacks in humans. Dr. Burghardt asserts that medications seem particularly effective when administered soon after traumatizing events. The Labrador retriever that cowered under a cot after a firefight, for instance, was given Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and within days was working well again.

It's an interesting subject, and I'd recommend the article to anyone with an interest in pet behavior.  I also think it's important to reconize that the men and women in the military are often supported by canine soldiers, and we need to honor their service as well.