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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Affects Animals, Too

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

If you or someone close to you has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you know the emotional and physical toll it can take on the person as well as his or her closest circle of family and friends. You also know that there is hope for people with PTSD, but only with the benefit of proper diagnosis, treatment, and support.

Now imagine the difficult symptoms of PTSD taking root in a beloved pet. That’s right, it can happen to our most loyal companions.

We know this because the military recently reported that over 10% of the service dogs that are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan develop PTSD. It often manifests in behavior that was previously uncharacteristic. For instance, a service dog that had always interacted well with other dogs and humans may become wary or aggressive. The most consistent bomb sniffers and rescue dogs may become inconsistent in behavior or performance. Restlessness and anxiety are common and difficult to ameliorate.

Many of these dogs require extensive treatment, which can include reconditioning, retraining, and medication. While many dogs can eventually return to service, some are retired and adopted into loving homes that can provide them with normal, less-stressful lives.

My heart goes out to these service dogs that have made sacrifices to our country above and beyond what is expected of such gentle, innocent creatures. Although more research is needed on the prevalence and nature of PTSD in animals, we can cautiously surmise that non-service dogs and other animals are susceptible to PTSD as well. Just think of the countless traumatic events encountered by the 5 to 7 million animals that enter shelters every year, such as abuse, neglect, forced fighting, natural disasters, and accidents. If you are one of the lovely people who has adopted a shelter animal, it’s hard to know what your companion has experienced in the past, even when the shelter has done its homework.

I found an interesting article by Lee Charles Kelley, a dog trainer who has taken an interest in addressing PTSD in animals, who suggests that the following symptoms may indicate that your pet should be evaluated by a veterinarian for PTSD:

  • Uncharacteristic aggressiveness
  • Fearfulness
  • Increased agitation
  • Weak appetite
  • Reduced interest in playing, going for walks, or interacting with other dogs
  • Hypervigilance (an intense, “on guard” awareness of one’s surroundings)
  • Tendency to be easily startled
  • Urinating or defecating inside (when already housebroken)
  • Increased neediness or attachment
  • Unprovoked whining or crying

Again, this is a preliminary list of symptoms that needs further research. However, it would only be logical to take your pet to the doctor promptly if you notice any of these signs, regardless of the cause (some medical conditions can create some of these symptoms as well). If you feel your pet may need some help, please don’t delay. Just as it is in humans, PTSD in animals will only improve with treatment.


Kelley, L. C. (August 8, 2012). Canine PTSD: Its causes, signs and symptoms. Psychology Today:

Perry, T. (November 26, 2012). Military’s dogs of war also suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Chicago Tribune.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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