After the Bite Post-Traumatic Stress
As a veterinarian, and behaviorist I find myself not only analyzing the aggressive animal, but also helping the victim of bites to find relief from their distress. When a bite occurs without warning, meaning the usual body language that aggression is brewing is absent, then this can result in a state of chronic anxiousness. There are some cases where warning does not happen. This can result in a lasting fear from the memory and not knowing how to prevent the situation in the future. In short, it can create a state of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).
The most common circumstances where a dog will suddenly bite is when there is sudden movement or when they are in pain. The lunging at movement is often seen without growling, barking or snarling. This reactive dog, – goes from look – stare – lunge – bite at least 4 times faster than a normal dog. The typical body language of growling, or snarling is skipped over. The lunge – bite happens so fast most people miss it. All you did was walk in the room and the dog or cat is already up on your arm grabbing you and biting or clawing away.
A bite or near bite from a reactive dog is very scary. This is a serious work hazard of veterinary professionals. I have interviewed many veterinary staff who only walked in a room to have a large breed dog lunge up and grab them by the forearm creating serious injury. I myself was cornered by a semi sedated German Shepherd who suddenly lunged up at me when I walked past 3 feet away from the dog. Fortunately, I was not hurt, but it took me 15 years to be comfortable around nice German Shepherds. The sight of a German Shepherd had me back in that scary moment. I know other veterinary professionals who are very leery of cats after a cat has lunged up and bitten them badly. We all love animals and our work – yet this trauma is real.
How do we “get over” the memory of the aggressive dog or cat? There are various methods used for PTSD in people that can be applied. I will present ideas that have worked for veterinary professionals and may help you. First, do not allow people to keep bringing nice dogs or cats around you if you are not ready for this. The first steps are to acknowledge what you are feeling, and what triggers those feelings. Make a list of exactly what you see, what is around you and what place you are in when you feel your signs of anxiety. Avoid these situations. If you live with an animal that has bitten you, seek a veterinary behaviorist immediately to form a safety plan for you. All animals sense our stress. When a human is acting scared or anxious, that is telling the animal something bad is happening. But the bite victim is in stress, so avoidance is a first step in reducing the anxiety. If you have friends with wonderful dogs or cats, this is not an insult to refuse to be around these animals. There are steps one can take to learn to not be triggered by the nice animals, but this takes a lot of work, and depending on the degree of PTS, may not be achievable. If you have the wonderful Golden Retriever, and someone says they need you to put your dog away, please do so!
If you need to live with this animal, make safety tools fun for the animal. Using an umbrella opened as you walk in the door to prevent your cat from grabbing your ankles can give you a sense of control and security. When you walk through the door and open the umbrella toss chopped chicken to your cat to go away from you as you walk across the room. For the cat, the umbrella means yummy chopped chicken to run across the room to get, and they will not be pouncing on your feet. You have the umbrella to feel more protected in case they do not scamper away. With the umbrella you feel better. The cat has learned it is fun time and life is way better.
For a dog who may bite make using a muzzle fun. Yes, this is possible. I have a YouTube video on my channel drsallyjfoote called Muzzle for Reward. We used this often at my office, where a dog gets peanut butter or baby food through the muzzle. In short, it is a feed mask that keeps us safe from a sudden lunge – bite.
There are a lot of pets in our world. The companionship of a pet can be wonderful. When this pet may bite suddenly, it is not only the pain and injury of the bite, but the breaking of the emotional bond that can be adding to the pain. While there can be many ways to help a family avoid bites and reduce the risk of aggression, for some animals this is not possible. In this situation, re homing or euthanasia may be the best choice. I hope that many can be empathetic to the people who are in PTS from animal injury.
- written by Dr. Sally J. Foote