For one of the many hats I wear as an animal behavior consultant and trainer, I work with traumatized animals. Even before I did, I was interested in learning about PTSD-like patterns of behavior in animals coming out of traumatic situations. My interest stemmed from working with hoarded cats and from the appearance in my life of my dog seven years ago. As animals have taught me, trauma comes in different forms. It is not only a single, disturbing event. It can also be the result of prolonged exposure to a distressing experience.
Like so many other people, the COVID-19 stay-at-home order has impacted me professionally, financially, and mentally. Simultaneously, a traumatized foster cat has come into my life. It seems fitting that I am drawn, once again, to examine the impacts of trauma.
I got a call two weeks ago from the operations director of an animal welfare organization for which I sit on the Board. I had made it known that I would be home for a while due to the “COVID-thing” and available to foster kittens if any came our way from one of the many community cat colonies that we assist. Instead, I got a wreck of a cat.
Percy was in a lot of pain when I picked him up from the vet clinic. He had likely been attacked by another animal. He had multiple puncture wounds to a rear leg and broken nails and teeth. The vet drained an abscess on his leg the day the before I picked him up. He was underweight, had a horrible upper respiratory infection and diarrhea, and tested positive for FIV. While the vet cleaned him up, she neutered him. “OK,” I thought, “Not fuzzy, fun kittens but this guy needs someone who can care for him physically and behaviorally, and I can do that.”
Antibiotics, pain meds, wiping his sore and dirty bottom, and warm compresses daily added to the trauma of his experience. He only got up to move to his food bowl and did not put any weight on the injured leg. He tolerated my touches with ears turned away. Once he was done with pain meds, just touching the warm compresses to his leg caused him enough pain that he would hiss and “try” to bite me. Two more abscesses developed despite my efforts. A week after I originally picked him up, the veterinarian decided that removing his leg was going to be the best way to help him get on the road to recovery.
In the few days since I brought Percy home after the amputation, he is a new cat. Without that painful leg, he has started to push his head into my hand for pets. He rubs against me and the furniture in the foster room. Occasionally, I hear a soft purr while I pet I him. He gets up to eat while I am near and is learning how to get around on three legs. He does not miss his injured leg; removing it freed him to move beyond the trauma. He is not 100% yet but he is no longer in pain and no longer feels like he has to constantly protect himself from further pain.
Watching Percy’s transformation got me thinking about the impact of trauma on behavior. Percy did not voluntarily get rid of his leg; he could not make that decision for himself. But now that it is gone, he is happier and feels safer. His behavior reflects those feelings.
The unexpectedness and uncertainty that we are living with during the COVID-19 pandemic is traumatic for many of us in so many ways – financially, physically, socially, emotionally. We are bound to live with some behavioral ramifications of our current situation, but we can bounce back and thrive.
I have seen behavioral resilience in both cats and dogs who have come from traumatic situations. But it wasn’t until I watched Percy let go of the tangible evidence of his trauma and listened to the audiobook “The Education of Will” by Patricia McConnell, in which she describes her own journey out of trauma, that the pieces snapped together for me.
Why do we choose to hang onto trauma and pain and to let it define us? We hang onto “things” that are not healthy, and we cling to the “way things should be” even if those things, people, or ways no longer serve us or cause us continued trauma. Our behavior reflects our pain and the burden of carrying around something that we feel we must protect. We are cautious and fearful and sometimes downright unpleasant to be around.
If we can learn to let go of the things that no longer serve us when we come out on the other side of this pandemic-induced trauma, we will be better for it. Maybe we can all figure out how to stop hanging on to the pain that weighs us down and makes us suspicious that others mean us harm. I hope we learn that we can purr again.