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By Wailani Sung, DVM, DACVB

Oftentimes when we adopt pets from rescue organizations or local animal shelters, we are not able to obtain their complete history. Obtaining a pet from a local owner does not guarantee that you will always receive useful or truthful information either.

Quite often, owners think their newly adopted pets have been abused because they are head shy when people reach out to pet them or avoid people who stare at them. What most people do not understand is that there is a miscommunication occurring. Direct eye contact, leaning over, and reaching for the top of a dog’s or cat’s head or neck can all be perceived as a threatening gestures. In the animal world, those gestures are interpreted as a challenge or an indication that the person is about to do harm. Most pets will instinctively avoid eye contact or lean or move away to indicate that they are deferential to the person who is inadvertently challenging or being overbearing toward the pet. 

Sometimes it may be difficult to determine if a pet had been abused and neglected versus being undersocialized or genetically predisposed to exhibit fearful behavior. Here are some common signs that your pet may have been abused in the past and advice on how to gain your new pet’s trust.

Signs of Past Abuse in Pets

Pets who have been abused can display a large emotional reaction to certain objects or situations. For instance, a dog who has been beaten in the past by a belt may immediately cower, try to crawl away, hide, or urinate in place when his new owner picks up a belt to put on themselves. Another reaction could be the dog immediately lunges and tries to bite the belt the owner is holding. A cat may exhibit similar signs of avoidance and retreat or go on the offensive and attack the person holding the belt.

Sometimes these animals overreact to the slightest change in their environments. The reaction is typically over the top and dramatic in response to the slightest hand movement, a raised tone of voice, the owner walking quickly across the room, or an item being dropped on the floor. These animals may cower, eliminate, go hide, or try to escape the room and the owner’s presence.

Gaining Your New Pet’s Trust

If you knowingly adopt an animal with a history of abuse or neglect, do your homework ahead of time and make preparations. If you have not already prepared for it, you are going to get a quick education in living with and managing a pet with special needs. Depending on the animal’s temperament, the degree of individual resiliency, and the amount of mental and physical trauma the pet has experienced, you will need to make adjustments to your current and potential future lifestyle. 

Here are several useful tips that can help a new pet adapt to your house:

  1. Give your new pet space to retreat when he/she becomes overwhelmed or scared.
  2. Establish a safe place for elimination to avoid messes in your house.
  3. Learn to read his/her body language.
  4. Build up his/her confidence and strengthen the owner-pet bond by teaching him/her some cued behaviors through training sessions at home or with the assistance of a trainer.
  5. Seek the help of professionals, whether it is your veterinarian for the pet’s medical needs, a certified trainer for pet education, or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist to address your pet’s mental and emotional health and well-being.

You can gain the animal’s trust by learning to read her body language and giving her plenty of space and room to heal. She may need her own space to retreat to, such as a kennel or even another room. You may need to use pet gates or exercise pens to create a safe barrier between pets or family members.

You may need to feed your pet separately away from other people or pets and provide a special toiletry area. Some dogs may be difficult to housetrain if they lived in environments in which they eliminated where they slept. Others may develop a peculiar behavior of not eliminating on-leash or in the backyard.

You can strengthen your bond with your new pet by providing positive experiences that she enjoys, such as playing with toys, giving her tasty treats, or taking her outside for excursions, as long as the pet does not exhibit any fear, anxiety, or aggression in those situations.

Training exercises for both dogs and cats are really helpful in cementing the relationship between pet parents and new pets. It is also a way to strengthen the line of communication and make sure that our pets can clearly understand our intentions in certain situations. Working with your pet can make life easier and more predictable, which helps reduce her anxiety. When your pet appears worried or scared, she sometimes may allow you to intervene by getting her attention and redirecting her toward more appropriate behaviors.

Behavioral Therapy for Abused Pets

Unfortunately, in some of these cases, love does not cure all. If the mental and physical trauma is severe enough, these pets will need a lot of emotional support and management from their new owners.

There are no quick fixes. These pets will need the assistance of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist to develop a management and treatment plan to help owners work through their pets’ issues. Sometimes behavioral therapy provides resolution of the behavioral disorders within a few months. Other times, it takes years of behavior modification exercises, along with the use of psychoactive medications and intense management.

Behavioral therapy requires an owner with plenty of patience and commitment to care for the newly adopted pet. However, the challenges of adopting and working with an abused or neglected animal can bring great rewards. Many owners have also gained a new appreciation of their relationship with their pets and discovered how gratifying it is to save a life and earn that animal’s trust.

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