Monthly Archives: May 2011

Guest post: Understanding the Emotional Symptoms of Animal Abuse

This is a guest post by Allison Gamble!

People who suffer from physical and psychological abuse exhibit behavioral and emotional symptoms even long after the abuse has stopped, and the same is true for animals. Whether the abuse is emotional or physical, it will leave indelible marks on the animal’s psyche. However, by employing a sort of animal forensic psychology, you can learn to better understand these behaviors, including the types of abuse known to cause each, which is essential if you wish to successfully rehabilitate an animal that has suffered from abuse. Only by understanding the cause of the behavior and what actions you should avoid when handling the animal will you be able to mitigate the animal’s reactions and help it overcome the fear and aggression that maybe a characteristic part of its current behavior.

Territorial Aggression as a Reaction to Abuse

Territorial aggression is primarily thought of as a canine behavior; although it can affect any animal that feels that its territory is threatened. Generally, territorial aggression is a reaction to the animal’s territory being severely limited, often by chaining the animal.

According to the National Humane Education Society , animals that are chained typically suffer from neglect in several forms, including inadequate shelter, nutrition and hydration. As such, their basic survival needs are not met on a regular basis. Additionally, the animal, generally a dog, does not receive the love and attention that it craves as a social animal. As they become farther removed from the human companionship that would make them safe to be around, they tend to become aggressive. Torment at the hands of passing people and the aggression of other animals is also common, exasperating this condition. Their reaction is generally preordained. They behave aggressively, defending what little territory they have to call their own.

The Journal of the Veterinary Medical Association conducted a study that revealed chained dogs were 2.8 times more likely to bite than their non-chained counterparts. This due to the fact they are simply trying to protect their small territory from others, and they have not had the chance to form the necessary human bonds that would naturally eliminate this behavior.

It is important to note that not all animals that are chained are the victims of abuse. Some may be chained for short periods of time with fresh food and water or even be chained only when their owner is also working outside. These animals typically will not be aggressive or exhibit other symptoms of abuse, such as depression or timidity.

Aggression Towards the Owner

While it may not perhaps be en vogue to refer to the caretaker of an animal as an owner, most individuals who abuse their animals view themselves as just that. The animal is theirs to do with as they please. For some, this will include physical violence (beating or otherwise harming the animal when it disobeys), emotional abuse (withholding the affection the animal craves) and physical neglect (providing inadequate food, water, shelter, and protection from fleas and other parasites). The dog learns to fear the owner because the owner does not provide what it needs and because the owner often treats the animal in ways that cause it to cower or feel physical pain. Thus, as a the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) points out, animals that cower in fear or react with aggression when approached by their owner generally are victims of abuse.


Oftentimes, animal abuse takes the form of neglect, and the animal becomes fearful of people because she or he has not been properly socialized. Generally, emotionally abused animals will behave in passive and timid ways, although it is not possible to say that all dogs that are submissive have been abused. For some, this is just their personality. For others, it is a deliberate choice.  A paper by Dr. Kertsi Seksel  details some of the patterns in submissive and timid behavior abused animals will exhibit, including learned helplessness (failing to help itself due to fear of the outcome), behavioral extremes and involuntary urination due to stress.


Just like people, animals can become depressed as well. However, unlike people, depression in animals generally does not last for long periods of time. As discussed by  WebMD , often it is related to changes in the animal’s environment or the loss of a primary caregiver. However, in some cases, depression may be a sign of abuse.

Generally, depression in animals is characterized by changes in behavior; listlessness; and a lack of enthusiasm for events, such as walks and meals, which typically made their days exciting. It would be a mistake to view an animal that appears depressed as abused, as many factors may contribute to depression in animals. However, a depressed animal should be carefully monitored, especially if the behavior does not change, as this might be a sign of depression.

A Word of Caution

No single behavioral sign is symptomatic of abuse. Just as people act out for a variety of reasons, so do animals. An aggressive dog may fear people due to a learned response in its past, but the current owner is not the abuser, nor does it mean the dog is kept chained all of the time. Timid animals learn to be submissive for a number of reasons, and oftentimes it can be a sign that the animal feels safe and protected with its current caretaker. They would act out if they did not feel this way. Depression can easily be seen as a sign of abuse, but often it speaks to a personal heartache the animal has recently faced.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that understanding an animal’s past circumstances can be the key to having a successful relationship with it in the present. An animal that was kept chained for much of its life prior to rescue should not be put back on a chain. Instead, you should work carefully to teach the animal that he does not need to guard his territory. If an animal was repeatedly struck with a folded newspaper, learn from his cues and avoid carrying a folded newspaper around him or her. With careful work and the guidance of professionals, including animal behaviorists and veterinarians, it is possible to mitigate the emotional symptoms of animal abuse.

Getting Back Out There – The Post A Week Challenge

I know I haven’t posted in quite some time and for that I apologize. Back at the beginning of April I was on a roll, posting almost every day. I really enjoyed it. Then a comment was made that really bothered me, about the fact that it was obvious that I didn’t have much going on in my life since I was able to write so much. For those of you who missed it, I was laid off in January. You can read about it here. I thought I was handling it all with grace, if I do say so myself, until about two months ago, and then the reality of it all hit me like a ton of bricks. When you’ve built your life around being a professional and having a career, however frustrating that career may be, and then it gets yanked away from you, suddenly it feels as if the bottom fell out. And when that comment was made I didn’t realize that it would bother me so much, but it was like pouring salt into an open wound.

So I stopped writing. Not just because of what was said, but because I let it get under my skin. It made me think too much, and the negative thoughts just kept piling on top of each other in my mind. But truth be told, I DID have a lot going on. I was completing my master’s degree. I was continuing my job search (which finally paid off – I start a new job, IN THE FORENSICS FIELD, in less than two weeks!!!), and I was taking on odd jobs in the meantime. But in my day to day sadness none of that mattered. I felt like a failure. Maybe some of you out there know what I’m talking about or are going through it yourselves right now. It sucks, doesn’t it? Even with the massive amount of people dealing with this issue, it’s a VERY lonely place to be.

Things are slowly turning around. I graduate soon. I will be starting a new job. I have other exciting things coming up. I’m beginning to pull myself up by the bootstraps, but it ain’t easy. Like one of my good friends told me, it’s hard to get out of a funk. I have good and bad days. But I can’t let it keep me from the things I care about, like writing about the issues that matter to me. So I’ve decided I want to get back to it! Rather than just thinking about doing it, I’m starting right now. I will be posting on this blog once a week for the rest of 2011. More if I can manage. It’s a challenge, but I’m up for it. The topics that I write about need exposure. The more awareness I can spread, the more excitement I can generate, the more of a difference we can all make. I hope you will continue to follow along with me, and feel free to write or make comments. I see great things coming in the future – not just for me but for forensics and the amazing things this science can achieve.

Stay tuned – it will be a fun ride. I will also be publishing guest posts by others in the near future; a fantastic aspect of this that I didn’t anticipate! And for anyone else in the same boat that I am, stay focused, stay strong, believe in yourself, and try to ignore the negative (especially when it comes from yourself).