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How to Care for an Abused Pet

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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It is a sad fact of life that many animals suffer abuse of some kind during their lives. Abuse can take the form of physical assaults or punishment - but many pets suffer from the silent abuse of neglect. When abuse occurs during a sensitive stage of a pet's development, it can have a profound impact for the rest of its life, even if the pet is subsequently removed from the abusive environment.

An older animal may bounce back from a bad situation, but a young, impressionable pet will show lasting mental scars. He or she often has to be coaxed out of a shell of resistance and will likely never be fully trusting.

Types of Abuse

Abuse takes many forms, including the following:

  • Unnecessarily early weaning (maternal deprivation)
  • Social isolation (partial or complete)
  • Deprivation of proper learning experiences
  • Physical restraint (tying, small crates or cages)
  • Verbal or physical punishment (yelling, hitting, beating)
  • Improper care and maintenance (improper or indifferent feeding, hygiene, grooming)
  • Deliberate or thoughtless infliction of chronic stress or pain

    The Pet's Reaction

    Whether dog, cat, or other species, the universal response to abuse is one of mistrust, social withdrawal, physical inactivity, and depression. The thoroughly defeated dog or cat often hunkers in the corner of a room, not daring to explore its environment. This fear can extend to the outside world, giving an appearance of agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). Severely affected animals may not want or know how to play. They remain vigilant, reclusive and often quiet.

    These are general signs. Specific signs may reflect the type of abuse the pet suffered. For example, if a young dog or cat has been forced to spend many hours alone, it may fear a return of this situation with such intensity that they become overly attached to a caring owner and may show extreme anxiety when separated from him/her. Alternatively, affected dogs or cats may simply fear being left alone – a slightly different situation.

    Cats that have not been exposed to people during the first 7 weeks of life never become fully accepting of people and thus rarely make good pets. Cats that have been mistreated by people during the same period may become positively hostile to strangers for the rest of their lives. The same is true for dogs, except that the sensitive period usually concludes at around 12-14 weeks.

    Abuse and neglect have other serious ramifications. The behavioral flaws arising from inappropriate rearing can threaten animals' lives because affected pets do not know how to respond appropriately to different situations.

    How To Rehabilitate a Previously Abused Pet

    First of all, don't expect things to turn around overnight and do not have too high expectations for the final result. It often takes a year to transform a reclusive, abused pet into a family-friendly companion. Even so, do not expect a miracle: You are unlikely to achieve complete resolution of the issues. Previously abused pets can become accepting of their human family members but making them into well-rounded social successes is an almost impossible task.

    That said, to attempt such therapeutic work can be a rewarding challenge, and those who have met with success never regret the decision they made to make a formerly miserable pet happy and save its life.

    Here's how to proceed:

  • Make your pet feel needed and loved
  • Allow your new pet to become accustomed to you at his own pace – never try to force the issue
  • Protect your pet against whatever he fears
  • Build the pet's confidence by introducing him to situations in which you arrange for him to be successful (arrange a positive outcome)
  • Strive for clear communication with your pet
  • Always ensure adequate exercise and a healthy diet
  • Give your new pet a safe place where he can go to get away from it all

    Some specific measures include the following:

  • Always speak quietly and encourage others in the household to do the same. Whisper "commands." There's never any advantage to shouting. It doesn't make the message any clearer.

  • Try sitting in a quiet room at night with your new pet. Prevent him from totally dismissing you and avoiding your company completely by strategically closing certain doors. Sit quietly on a couch or bed and read a good book. Make sure the dog or cat is hungry before you start and arm yourself with delicious food treats (hot dog or freeze-dried liver for most dogs; Pounce food treats for cats). Toss or slide the occasional food treat across the floor toward him. When a paw emerges from beneath the sofa he is hiding under you are on the right track. When he takes a pace or two toward you and you're getting warm. "Baby steps" should be incrementally rewarded with additional food. It is the best way to engender confidence and trust. Never try to hurry things along.

  • If your pet shows separation anxiety, arrange for him to have plenty to do when you have to go out.

  • If strangers terrify your pet, protect him from their well-meaning advances.

  • Engage a "reverse dominance" program, in which your pet has everything he wants and needs for free. Do not make him work for food, praise, toys or your attention. These should always be available at no cost.

  • One excellent way to build a pet's confidence is through click-and-treat training (a.k.a. "clicker training"). In this type of training, the pet is "empowered" by having the opportunity to find a way to make you click and thus receive a reward. Once pets figure out how the game is played, they may prefer the "game" over the reward. Think of click-and-treat training as a means of non-verbal communication. Signals or voice cues can be added at a later stage.

  • Take care of the pet's basic biological needs by providing aerobic exercise and a healthy diet. Dogs need 20 to 30 minutes of running exercise (not just walking) every day. Cats need an opportunity to release energy in explosive bursts to dissipate their predatory tendencies. A tired pet is a good and happy pet!

    Once appropriate background measures are in place, and the pet is on the mend, it is time to consider active rehabilitation in the form of desensitization. Desensitization is the behavioral equivalent of homeopathy: A little bit of what ails (step-wise approach to feared person or situation) is employed under close control to do some good.

    Whether the "little bit" entails limited and controlled exposure to strangers or being left alone depends on the particular needs of the pet. Desensitization is best performed in conjunction with counter-conditioning – a process in which animals' fear cues are associated with a positive (or, at least, different) response. The usual strategy is to replace a previously fearful response with an appetitive response using delicious food as the conditioner.

    With reference to training, as ethologist Konrad Lorenz once said, "Art and science aren't enough; patience is the basic stuff." This is especially true when it comes to rehabilitating formerly abused animals. Such animals present the greatest challenge, because they are not blank slates for inscription but rather have already been exposed to un-erasable unfortunate learning. However, this is not to say that amazing turnarounds cannot be achieved - for they can - only that trainers must work hard with such pets to superimpose new learning that will submerge earlier adverse learning experiences.

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