(Haaretz) — It’s a lazy afternoon. It’s hot and the family’s hanging out. Suddenly a rocket siren shatters the peace. Everybody, including the family’s five dogs, heads promptly but calmly to the reinforced “safe room.” Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, as the siren wails, D.’s dog pees on the floor in terror. Jasmine’s three cats twitch an ear, at most, but otherwise – nada.
We all react to terrifying stimuli in different ways, and, after it, some of us may develop the chronic, debilitating condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is sometimes treated with the help of animal therapy. But animals can suffer lingering after-effects of trauma, too, and their only recourse to healing is us.
“I don’t call it PTSD,” says Dr. Ofra Gallily DDM, an animal behavior consultant, right off the bat. “But animals can certainly have post-trauma symptoms. If their brain chemistry is normal, if the animal is normative, they’ll get better. If the problem lasts years, they had a problem with their brain chemistry to begin with.”
PTSD is not a recognized syndrome in veterinary medicine, but many believe it exists – including the American army. Certainly the conditions in Israel are ripe for shock, and while PTSD may be difficult to diagnose in the nonverbal, stress is not.
“A huge number of dogs have been abandoned or fled from bombs in southern Israel and Gaza, and got lost,” says Eti Altman, spokeswoman for the animal rights and rescue organization Let the Animals Live. “The ones who’ve been caught and placed in shelters demonstrate acute stress at every rocket siren or explosion.”
Some dogs race to hide if possible – under tables, for instance, Altman says. Many have begun circling as if chasing their own tails and can do this for hours. “Dogs have much more acute hearing than humans,” she points out. “They hear the sirens and booms 100 times more loudly.”
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a globally celebrated veterinary behaviorist and expert on PTSD in animals, now at Tufts University in Massachusetts, calls it by name and has been doing so for years.
“I diagnosed PTSD in a dog years ago,” says Dodman. The dog had been shot by a Boston policeman and recovered, physically. But he had all the hallmarks of PTSD. “He was totally anxious, hyperventilating and couldn’t sleep. Apparently he was having bad dreams,” says the doctor. “When the dog’s owner and his son came to me with the dog, they hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in two years. They had to do a tag team with the dog at night because he was so anxious.” Dodman successfully treated the dog with medication, he says.
Gallily isn’t alone in declining to associate the symptoms in animals with PTSD per se. The U.S. army is just as squeamish – but has admitted to the existence of “CPTSD,” says Dodman. Yep, that “C” stands for “canine.” “A lot of people can’t possibly call a dog’s condition by the same name as a human condition, lest it be mortifying to the soldier,” Dodman sniffs.
Moreover, the U.S. army set rather draconian criteria for acknowledging CPTSD, he says: The dog must have experienced the theater of war, has to have been involved in a catastrophic incident, and has to experience specific signs. But any dog that underwent a traumatic experience – like being shot or in a car accident – or underwent intensive, invasive therapy – most notably being attached to a ventilator – can develop the condition, Dodman says. And you can call it what you like, but the devil has a name and it’s PTSD.
In fact, the U.S. army was one of the first venues to recognize the problem of post-traumatic damage to dogs, Dodman relates, having been called in to consult in the case of Gina, a bomb-sniffing young German shepherd who developed problems after a six-month tour in Iraq. She was exposed to any number of bangs and flashes, and upon her return home exhibited the classic signs of PTSD, including extreme stress when her handlers tried to get her to enter a house. She would hyperventilate and resist; if forced inside, she would slink around.
Not every soldier, dog or gerbil develops PTSD even after a terrifying event, though in theory any mammal can, says Dodman, adding, “I’ve not seen PTSD in cats but it probably works the same way. All mammals have basically the same neurotransmitters.”
That said, only a fraction of people, soldiers or police dogs wind up with PTSD – at most, about a fifth of individuals who underwent a traumatic experience. Dodman agrees with Gallily that who gets it and who doesn’t ultimately boils down to brain chemistry.
In 2012, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine identified a gene linked with PTSD, findings they reported in Molecular Psychiatry. The gene, RORA, is associated with protecting brain cells from the damaging effects of stress.
Individuals – soldiers, cats, rats - with the RORA risk variant are more likely to develop PTSD after a horrid experience.
Nice to know. What’s even better to know is that blocking the gene (in people who have it) can prevent the development of PTSD following trauma, Dodman says. The drug that does the trick is a beta-blocker, scientists showed in 2010 through a series of “awful, unkind” experiments with rats as he puts it – exposing them to terrifying experiences of the sort pretty much guaranteed to cause PTSD.
One symptom of PTSD is chronically reliving the traumatic event, in dreams and while awake.
“If you are susceptible genetically or epigenetically, in the face of terrible catastrophe your body floods with catecholamines like epinephrine and norepinephrine, and dopamine also. One of the effects is to prepare you for fight or flight. Life is terrifying,” explains Dodman. And that terrifying moment creates an indelible memory.
“These chemicals are responsible for ingraining the memory to the point that it becomes so permanent and causes flashbacks that you never forget. You can’t erase PTSD once it’s formed,” he says. “But if you take beta-blockers within hours of the traumatic event, the memories don’t imprint and you don’t develop PTSD in the first place.”
Dodman’s conclusion is that soldiers in combat should carry a beta-blocker – specifically, propranolol – in their packs and, if they see or experience something horrendous, they should take it to avert the syndrome. The U.S. army, however, decided not to devote budgets to pursuing the topic through research done on dogs, to his chagrin.
Lest you wonder why our bodies would evolve to remember something we’d much rather forget – think of this. Pretend, for a moment, you’re a mouse and you go around activity corner and see some great huge serpent that opens its maw to devour you. “You wouldn’t want to forget it’s there,” Dodman points out. “Nature has equipped us with this very vivid memory of things that are terrible, so we don’t go back there.
“Of course, you can have too much of a good thing,” he adds. And that’s where healthy aversion turns into PTSD, which is classified in the manual of psychiatry along with other phobias as an extreme and somewhat irrational fear.