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.

Timidity

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.

Depression

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.

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3 responses to “Guest post: Understanding the Emotional Symptoms of Animal Abuse

  1. Very informative. I will pass this on.

  2. My wife and I rescued a Border collie. The circumstances were odd. I walked him for 6 months while he lived on his owner’s property. Appeared to be mentally and physically O.K. From the first day we took him and he began living inside, he changed. He became a biter.

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