Creating Secure Attachment with Your Traumatized/Skittish Pet

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Dr. Bugatti & her skittish cat she helps with attachment theory from her EFT Therapy skills
Dr. Anabelle Bugatti and her kitty, Penelope

As an attachment therapist, I understand the impact trauma can have on a person's life. We know from attachment science (and from experience with my clients) that when trauma occurs in our early years, especially when it's coupled with the lack of a secure attachment figure to help us cope and organize the trauma, it can rewire our neurological circuitry to maintain a state of constant hyper-vigilance in our body. This can look like constantly on the look out for danger, threat, or that next shoe to drop, creating a hyper awareness and sensitivity that surpasses the body's normal propensity to scan for these threats.

In our body, hyper-vigilance maintains a constant state of arousal (adrenaline & cortisol release), it has to in order to be on the look out! But this constant flood of stress hormones makes it hard to rest and relax and power down when we need. Those who have been traumatized by other people, especially by attachment figures, often struggle to trust those around them.

What many don't realize it that the same behaviors show up in our pets! And for many of us, pets are attachment figures that we turn to for comfort and soothing and love in a time of stress. What we've discovered is that the same principles and interventions that we use in therapy on humans is also effective for helping other traumatized mammals, including our traumatized fur baby.

My own experience in this area comes from experimenting with my therapy techniques on our youngest kitty, Penelope (pictured above). She is an exotic shorthair, you may actually recognize the breed, it's the same as the famous feline Garfield, except she's not tabby colored. We got Penelope at 14 weeks old, 2 weeks past when most kittens are adopted out. The place we got her from also said she hadn't been socialized as early as the other kitties. We believe she might have been the runt of the litter because her big brother is the same breed and about 2x her size.

When Penelope first arrived to our home, she had defecated (the runs actually) in her carrier, and we immediately noticed she was skittish towards us. We assumed in the beginning that she just in the realm of normal with new people and a new home. Over the next few months we discovered that she was displaying symptoms of trauma, we believe she was possibly stepped on. She had a hard time being social with us, she would bolt into another room anytime a loud noise occurred or if my husband walked in (he is over 6 feet tall, so he can be intimidating to a very small animal). She also continued to have gastrointestinal problems for about 6 months, we experimented with all kinds of food, took her to the vet even. I ended up having to make homemade food to finally alleviate the runs and then worked on weaning her onto regular cat food. Behaviorally, I had to do things differently with her to develop a feeling of security that would allow her to more deeply bond with us.

Trauma in Pets

Much like in humans, symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma shows up very similarly in our pets. Only they don't have words to describe their experience or needs, so they are limited to communicating with their behavior. Trauma can occur in pets when they are neglected, beaten or hit/kicked, constantly yelled or screamed at, stepped on, run over, used to right or attack other animals. Here are a few signs your pet has been traumatized:

-Shy or skittish behavior

-Shows fear expressions or runs & hides when approached by persons of a particular gender

-Runs and hides when people come over to visit

-Spends a lot of time withdrawn sleeping under furniture as their hiding place

-Won't come out or come to you when you call to them or entice them with treats

-Winces and or cowers or rolls onto their back (dogs) when a larger or taller person approaches

-Winces or cowers when someone makes sudden movements or there are sudden loud noises

-Avoids taking treats or snacks from your hand

-Takes a long time to warm up to people

-Generally avoids getting close to you or other people, even if they live in the same house

-Snap or bite when you get too close as a way to get you to back off

-Skittish behavior coupled with developmental delays or digestive (poo) issues

-Inappropriate Urination (for cats peeing outside the litter box) or dogs who pee when they are scared or excited

-Arches their back whenever approached by people (cats)

-Get freaked out by new experiences, people or things

What does Secure Attachment in Your Pet Look Like?

We know through attachment science that our attachment system is neurologically hardwired into our brain's and our body's survival code. The attachment experiences we have early in life serve as our blueprint for how we experience the rest of the world and others in. The quality and security of our early attachment experiences also builds our internal representations for how we view ourselves (am I a good, loveable human being) and others (can I trust others or do I believe they will let me down or