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Complex Trauma

Posted by Margaret Donohue on April 14, 2016 at 8:00 PM

I explain complex trauma to my students by telling the story of my cat Tatum.  I met Tatum through a cat rescue organization.  Tatum was described as a fragile medically ill cat.  I picked her up in my arms and she jumped out of my grasp.  The rescue group had me sign several forms and gave me her medical history.  Three foster homes in her six months of life.  Countless medical visits.  Found in a cardboard box in a McDonald's parking lot in Lancaster, California.  She was prescribed multiple medications, creams, pills, a special diet, and she couldn't get along with other animals.  She was "slow to warm up."  "She's not to go outside.  She gets terrified.  She responds quickly to being sprayed in the face with water if she's doing something you don't want her to do."


The first time she ripped open her face I assumed what everyone had, that she had mites, or an infection, or some sort of parasite.  The first vet didn't find anything but prescribed medication anyway.  The second vet didn't prescribe because she was already on medication and nothing was changing.  So I asked if it was possible it was just self-injurious behavior.  "Oh, we call it delusional parasites"  the vet said.  So I did research.


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs commonly in animals. 

PTSD symptoms in pets can include:

  • Uncharacteristic aggressiveness
  • Fearfulness, trembling
  • Increased agitation
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Reduced interest in playing, going for walks, or interacting with other pets and/or people
  • Hypervigilance (an intense, “on guard” awareness of surroundings)
  • Tendency to be easily startled
  • Urinating or defecating inside (when previously housebroken)
  • Increased neediness or attachment
  • Unprovoked whining or crying
  • Excessive barking or meowing
  • Destructive behavior
  • Extreme escape behavior to avoid a stressor (such as chewing through drywall to attempt to flee during a thunderstorm)
  • Sudden changes in temperament
  • Hiding for no reason
  • Excessive panting
  • Pacing
  • Fear of being alone
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things associated with a traumatic event

Once I decided Tatum was suffering from PTSD, I changed everything I was doing.  The first thing I did was set up cardboard boxes all over the house.  She investigated all of them.  She would jump in a tall one and scratch frantically at the bottom.  Eventually I realized she was digging to try to get to her lost litter mates.  She made friends with a neighborhood cat that the neighbors could no longer keep and now lives with us.  The older cat helped Tatum go outside, calm down when there was a noise, and learn to tollerate being around another animal.  

I started taking her outside in the backyard.  It took months to get her comfortable to go outside.  Initially she could tolerate 30 seconds.  Now she can stay out for an hour or more.  

I stopped all the medication.  It was doing nothing.  I stopped the special diet.  It was doing nothing.  The face ripping lessened.  If she gets stressed she rips her face or ears open and it heals in a day or so.  She'll use the cardboard boxes if she's stressed, or hide on top of the kitchen cabinets.  When not stressed she purrs, and cuddles.  I have a predictable schedule.  She has a predictable routine.  Anything out of the ordinary and she starts ripping her ears or her face.  Those events are infrequent now.

The students will ask what made her get crazy.   And I explain that her world was a very scary place when she was a kitten.  She was with her litter mates then suddenly put in a cardboard box in a noisy parking lot and separated from them and her mother.  She was moved from one house to another.  She had lots of painful and annoying medical treatments.  Things changed constantly.  She went to a noisy rescue with lots of other cats and was terrified.  The only thing that seemed to stay the same was her food because she was put on a special diet.  So the rescue thought that was what helped.

The same thing happens in people.  They get in situations that are frightening, unpredictable and out of their control. They can't self-soothe. They revisit the trauma over and over trying to master it.  We have good treatment for people with trauma.  But trauma is exceptionally common in rescued pets.  The story helps the students understand a bit better.





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