Integrating Cats into Treatment for PTSD

I am A Vet with PTSD and if I didn’t have Oscar for a companion my depression would become worse and my feeling safe would diminish. He follows me like a dog and also comes to me when his name is called. My doctors know he is an important part of therapy as well…..MG (comment on Service Cats).

American soldiers in Afghanistan

American soldiers in Afghanistan. How many will come home suffering from the hidden illness: PTSD? Photo by The USO (on Flickr).

On this site, Elisa first wrote about American military veterans (vets) returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Her article is about service cats. Most often dogs play a role in rehabilitation. However, the humble domestic cat is perhaps the ideal companion animal for vets suffering from PTSD despite the feeling I have that there may be an initial resistance to the idea from a vet. Vets are more likely to be dog people.

I won’t go into detail about the psychology of PTSD. It is quite complicated. I think it is one of those conditions that you have to experience to fully understand it. Reading about it is not enough.

However, on a simplistic level, anyone going through an experience that reprograms the mind such that the person perceives the world differently (it is no longer a safe place), becomes fearful and anxious and reacts to ordinary events in a defensive/aggressive way may be suffering from PTSD. Vets suffering from PTSD have flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety and day to day events can trigger a hostile reaction as if the person is still fighting the war.

Although fighting in a war surrounds the soldier with experiences, each one of which has the potential to leave him/her suffering from PTSD, you don’t have to go to war to suffer from it. Crimes against the person such as rape and crimes against property such as burglary while the person is at home can result in PTSD to varying degrees.

I know because my home was burgled at night and I woke up to find the burglar leaving my home. For four or more years after that experience, I slept poorly and frequently believed that someone was in the house at night. I heard voices that were not voices. I heard people whispering downstairs when it was the wind. I believe I suffered from a mild form of PTSD.

There are various treatments for PTSD, one of which is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). All revolve around reprogramming the brain to see the world as before and to react in a ‘normal’ way to stimuli.

‘Vets need both effective treatment for their combat trauma and social support as they reintegrate into communities. Together we can all make a difference.’

These are the words of E.C. Hurley PH.D. a retired army colonel who treats vets with PTSD. The treatment is conducted by specialists like Dr. Hurley. It is often effective and vets should seek it out with commitment as it appears that treatment is not always readily available.

The other aspect of recovery is social support. That means people in the community also assisting the patient to recover. It also means that, in those moments between treatment and meeting people socially, the damaged vet, who deserves all the help he or she can get, has a cat companion by his side, to slow him down, to calm his nerves, to make him smile, to bring normality back to his shattered world.

Cats are very good for slowing you down for a while. A cat companion will take you away from what you are doing. Cats are also great therapy animals for autistic children. I sense that the domestic cat is slightly undervalued as a therapy animal. Let’s employ them more in this field. It will also help the cat by improving the image of the cat in the eyes of those who have misplaced perceptions about the cat.

Finally, cats (and dogs) played a role in helping soldiers in Iraq. I am sure there are similar stories in Afghanistan.

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Integrating Cats into Treatment for PTSD — 3 Comments

  1. How awful you were burgled Michael and actually saw the burglar too, no wonder you had PTSD. After a trauma it’s not what IS happening right now that your mind worries about, but what maybe is GOING to happen, what COULD happen, as it’s happened before.
    At our old home after being plagued by bullying anti social neighbours I was always on edge waiting for it to start even when it was quiet.
    The cats we had at the time brought me much comfort and I think some people couldn’t go on at all if they didn’t have their cat/cats around to bring some calm into their lives.

  2. Yes, Ruth, I think there are millions of people who receive great benefit from their cat but sort of take him or her for granted. We can take our cats for granted a bit. I certainly can. I suppose it is a human weakness.

  3. It’s a human failing to take things for granted isn’t it and then when it’s too late, we look back and wish we’d treasured every moment with loved ones, both people and pets.

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