Post traumatic stress disorder in dogs

Post traumatic stress disorder is well known in people, but dogs can also develop it. Treatment can be challenging and depends on the needs of the individual patient.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been recognized in military personnel, firemen and policemen for a number of years.1 Recently, however, it has been found that horrific experiences can cause dogs to develop PTSD, and this include household pets as well as military canines.2

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is defined as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”4 It has been estimated that about 5% of the 650 million military dogs being used today suffer from PTSD.2

Dogs are considered the most effective means of detected hidden explosive devices and so are extensively used by the US military. It is easy to see why military combat or bomb detection dogs, as well as search and rescue canines who have to find bodies after disasters, might be subject to this syndrome. However, civilian dogs can also fall victim to PTSD in a number of circumstances. If a dog is abandoned to live in the wild, has been through a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or is abused or has lost his caretaker, he could develop PTSD. Unfortunately, many rescue dogs could fall into this category.7

What are the signs?

The symptoms of PTSD in dogs are similar to those seen in separation anxiety or other forms of canine anxiety disorders. Elimination, vocalization and destruction are the most commonly reported signs of separation anxiety6 and of PTSD. Sudden, intense responses to thunderstorms or other noises may manifest as extreme escape behavior in these dogs.

Some dogs become with their handlers or stop working altogether.2 This can place the military personnel in jeopardy, says Dr. Walter Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. “If the dog is trained to find improvised explosives and it looks like it’s working, but isn’t, it’s not just the dog that’s at risk,” he says. “This is a human health issue as well.”2

Treatment can be challenging

Treatment for any dog that suffers from PTSD can be very difficult and depends on the individual patient.

• Sometimes the dog needs time off work.

• Other cases require desensitization training.

• Many times, retraining is combined with drug therapy for anxiety. Many of the drugs used to treat separation anxiety in dogs are used for PTSD. Drugs such as clomipramine, fluoxetine and amitriptyline are the most commonly used pharmaceuticals for this condition.5

• Exercise and play are other important facets of therapy for these dogs. If they are given the opportunity to run and chase other dogs, to play with their owners, to retrieve, swim, or run an agility course, they recover from this syndrome much more quickly. If the dog relearns how to have fun, treatments are much more successful.3

• Alternative treatments for stress disorders in dogs start with a good, basic, balanced homemade diet. The diet should be supplemented with Omega 3 fatty acids.

• Herbs and nutraceuticals can also help these dogs. L-theanine and melatonin can be helpful in treating PTSD just as they are for other forms of anxiety disorder in the canine. Chinese herbs have been used for anxiety and aggressive disorders in canines.

• Combining herbs and acupuncture is an effective treatment for anxiety and behavioral problems like those post traumatic stress disorder.

• Dog appeasing pheromones can also be used to reduce stress in these patients.

Cure or management?

The real question is, can these dogs be cured by any or all of these methods? In some cases, they seem to return to normal. In other cases, the dog’s problems need to be managed throughout his life. According to Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, this problem can go on for years and is never truly cured. “It is more management,” he says. “Dogs never forget.”5


1Boyle, Christina. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Affects Men and Women Equally: New Study.” New York Daily News. 08 June 2011. Web. 08 July 2012.

2Dao, James. “The Dogs of War, Suffering Like Soldiers.” The New York Times. 02 Dec. 2011. Web. 08 July 2012.

3Kelley, Lee C. “My Puppy, My Self. The Canine-Human Bond: Can Play Cure PTSD in Dogs?” Psychology Today. 01 Aug. 2011. Web. 08 July 2012.

4National Institute of Mental Health, Web. 08 July 2012.

5“K-9 PTSD — Some Vets Say Dogs Stressed by War, Too.” NoteworthyNews. YouTube, 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 08 July 2012.

6Overall, K. “Natural Animal Models of Human Psychiatric Conditions: Assessment of Mechanism and Validity.” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 24.5 (2000): 727-76.

7Yamamoto, Toshio. “An Unusual Behavior and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)-like Syndrome in Dogs After the Vigorous Earthquake with Seismic Scale of 5+ Degree.” Journal of Veterinary Medicine 984 (2003): 535-41.