Human beings aren’t the only ones who can suffer from mental illness. Animals can as well.
Contrary to what many people seem to think, animals have emotions like people do, & even process them much the same way as humans. This means that animals can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, following trauma.
Unfortunately for animals, they can’t verbalize their pain. You have to observe your pet to figure out if they have PTSD, & it can be tricky to identify.
My 2 year old cat, Punkin, has Feline PTSD. When he arrived in our home at 3 months old, I had no idea of this fact. All I knew was he showed up on the deck of the neighbor of my friend’s friend, & he was in need of a home. He was immediately friendly with the other cats, & seemed indifferent towards our dog, Dixie. A few months later, Punkin attacked Dixie out of the blue. My husband & I hollered at him immediately. He stopped, looking completely baffled, then ran away & hid. Thankfully Dixie didn’t even have a scratch, but she was visibly shaken, understandably so! My husband was mad at Punkin, but I realized he looked like I felt during a flashback. Once Punkin calmed down & apologized to Dixie (looking sheepishly at her & trying to be nice to her), I did some research & learned that yes, animals can have PTSD. I realized some signs to look for, at least in cats, but probably they are much the same in other animals:
- Kitty has been exposed to trauma. The lady who gave Punkin to me never knew of any trauma, & certainly there hasn’t been any since he’s been living with me. But, his attacking Dixie tells me he’s been through some terrifying experience with a dog before coming to me.
- Kitty avoids things that remind him of the trauma. For quite some time Punkin avoided Dixie. He wouldn’t even walk past her or nap on the bed or sofa if she was napping there.
- Heightened startle reflex. If your cat doesn’t see you’re going to touch him, he may jump drastically when you make contact. He can be very skittish.
- Sudden loud noises (for example, dropping a pan) upset your pet.
- Kitty can appear agitated or uneasy sometimes.
- Flashbacks. These can be harder to spot. Punkin looks different when it happens. He turns vicious (he’s normally very gentle, sweet & loving) for a very short time, then looks confused, & then runs & hides. After, he is skittish for a while.
- Kitty can respond disproportionately to what is happening. For example, someone suddenly picking up the cat startles the cat, who scratches &/or hisses. This behavior may trigger memory of the traumatic event.
After realizing what was going on with Punkin, I had to pray to figure out how to handle this problem. It’s not like I could take Punkin to a therapist, & he could discuss his feelings. As far as I know, veterinary medicine doesn’t even acknowledge PTSD in animals, so even a vet check up wouldn’t help. Thankfully God showed me some things.
- I pray for him. PTSD is nothing to take lightly, whether it’s in a human or animal. Although Punkin is doing very well most days, he has his bad days too. I pray for him on bad days as well as try to make him feel better if he’s open to it by offering extra love, playing or treats.
- I follow Punkin’s lead. If he wants to be left alone after a flashback, I leave him alone while keeping an eye on him from a distance to be sure he is OK. When he’s feeling playful or loving, I go with it. If he doesn’t want snuggles, I don’t snuggle him.
- If Punkin does something that warrants correction, I don’t holler at him, since noise upsets him. Instead, I say his name & tell him to stop it in a slightly louder than normal volume, but using a stern voice. He gets the point without aggravating that startle reflex.
- I try to keep life as consistent as possible. (Since I have Complex PTSD, it benefits me too.) I have a routine that rarely changes much. This helps Punkin know what to expect. It helps him to feel safe & secure.
- I give Punkin a lot of love & reassurance. He has no doubt he is loved & safe.
- We’re very blessed with Dixie- she has been a great help with Punkin learning to trust her. He sniffs her sometimes, as cats do, & she stays perfectly still, allowing him to sniff as much or as little as he likes. She’s never aggressive with him, which has helped him see that not all dogs are mean. She instinctively knows what he needs from her. As a result of efforts on both his & her parts, they are now on civil terms. In fact, sometimes he actually gives her a little love.