Preventive Medicine Column

Dr. David L. Katz

On December 1st, the NY Times published a tale rather disturbing to those of us who count dogs not only among ‘man’s’ best friends, but our very own.  The Times reported on the fairly high, and rising incidence, of post-traumatic stress disorder in service dogs deployed with the military around the world.  Such dogs are used to track enemy fighters, help secure buildings in urban combat, and sniff out mines- among other perilous duties.  In the process, they are exposed to the same gunfire and explosions as their human counterparts, and vulnerable to injury in all the same ways.

Including, it seems, mental injury.  According to the Times, the diagnosis of PTSD in canines is no older than a year and a half, and still controversial.  But whatever the condition is called, the toll of combat exposure among dogs is increasingly clear to the soldiers who rely on them, and the veterinarians who care for them.  As many as one dog in twenty succumbs, perhaps more depending on the exposures involved, and winds up with fairly dramatic behavioral disturbances.  Some dogs become “wired,” demonstrating restlessness, abnormal excitability, and hyper-vigilance.  Others cower under tables.

Also of note is that PTSD in dogs- by that name, or any other- is not restricted to the battlefield.  Similar reactions have been documented in dogs subject to motor vehicle crashes and other traumas.  Most of us have seen, if not first hand, at least in commercials for the ASPCA, what trauma can do to the demeanor of an animal.

My fellow dog lovers and I will readily acknowledge the significance of this sad tale were it to go no further.  While trauma to dogs cannot rival trauma to humans as the tragic costs of combat are tallied, at least the human combatants know what is going on.  Dogs just trustingly follow where we lead them.

But the tale does not end with the dogs.  If psychological trauma can be the tail that wags the demeanor of a dog, it has important implications for how humans treat humans.

Historically, mental health disorders have been denigrated in comparison to more demonstrably “physical” maladies.  A person crying out in pain with a compound fracture of the femur, or metastatic cancer- receives a standard of care involving both compassion, and appropriate medication.  A person crying out from mental anguish with no visible explanation for it may – even in this modern and ostensibly enlightened age- be the recipient of insult to compound their invisible injury.  There are few disparagements more bluntly dismissive than: “it’s all in your head.”

Which brings us back to the dogs.   Dogs, it seems, can be undone by trauma- and not just battlefield trauma.  They can apparently have flashbacks, or a close canine analogue.  And psychological trauma can wag the disposition of the dog, changing his or her personality fundamentally.

I suspect few would be inclined to suggest that such dogs are wallowing in discretionary self-pity.  Few would argue, and none could argue convincingly, that such dogs should just shrug it off and get over themselves.  The simple, uncluttered mind of a dog conveys a fairly straight-forward scene of traumatic cause, and pathological effect.  We cannot blame the dog!

Yet we do tend to blame the person in a similar plight.  The rationale is that the complex mind and rich psychological resources of our own species should be sufficient to do what the dog cannot.  But such thinking is entirely misguided.  Rather, if trauma can unhinge the naturally unencumbered mind of a dog, how much more so the natively complex, subtle, and highly vulnerable mind of ourselves?

Like their human counterparts, military dogs lose their lives in the line of duty as a matter of routine.  We now know they can lose their mental health and equanimity as well.  If that loss can help us better appreciate the legitimacy of such conditions in ourselves- whether due to battle, or the lesser slings and arrows of outrageous fortune- we are left further in debt to our trusting, loyal, four-legged friends.




Dr. David L. Katz;