Creating Secure Attachment with Your Traumatized/Skittish Pet
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
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 have a hidden agenda).
Science is very clear that when we have a safe and secure attachment system, we are able to explore the world around us with curiosity. We maintain a healthy balance between depending on our attachment figure and independently exploring the world around us. I'll use my two kitties to exemplify this. Penelope's big brother Spanky, also an exotic short hair, has secure attachment. He can approach us without fear, he will communicate with us, and bond with us. He also enjoys investigating the world around him. We bring in new boxes and he likes to play. New people come over and he approaches and smells them. We got a pet stroller and he loves going on walks outside. Penelope however, for the first two years we had her, would hide from new people, and would stay a safe distance from new objects. She also does not like going outside, and at the first slightly loud sound she freaks out and wants to go back into the house. She used to hide when new people came over, and maybe would make a brief cameo appearance sometime near the end of the gathering. Two entirely different ways of viewing the world.
With secure attachment, both people and animals see the world as an exciting place, of course being aware of possible danger, but not constantly scared of danger that they're afraid to explore. Those with insecure attachment have learned the world is a scary place and others are generally not to be trusted or relied on.
How to Help Your Traumatized Pet
If your fur baby has experienced trauma, don't despair. With a lot of patience and intention, you can help your pet feel safe and develop secure attachment in your home. As your pet starts to feel more secure, you will notice their behavior start to change, and the bond between you will become stronger. Here are a few tips to help you develop secure attachment in your traumatized pet:
- Be Patient
Just like with people, animals that have been traumatized take a lot of time to rebuild trust with humans. Many pet owners get frustrated, inpatient and discourage that their pet hasn't just figured out they're safe. It doesn't just work like that. They have experienced trauma, a rupture of safety and trust, and that doesn't get healed by osmosis. They aren't starting at a neutral baseline with you because of the trauma. They are starting at a negative, which has to work up to a neutral baseline before it will then move into the positive zone of feeling safe. It's taken us about 3 years to shape secure attachment in our kitty Penelope, and that's with a lot of focused, intentional safety building behaviors on our part. It will take time, hang in there. Don't push them too far too fast. You can regularly have intention about trying to nurture a connection with your kitty, but if they are showing signs they aren't ready, don't keep pushing. Let them know that you're tuned in, can accept where they're at, and can meet them there. Doesn't mean give up completely. It just means back up in that moment, and let them be where they are at. Come back later in the day or the next day, and try again. But take small steps towards increasing safety and connection, not huge ones that are outside of their window of tolerance that are more likely to reinforce their trauma rather than build safety.
The key is to remember that safety for a traumatized pet is slow steps, consistently over time.
- Consistency Over Time
Trust and safety is built with consistency over time. The safety mechanisms in the Human and other mammal survival system are wired for predictability. That means being able to know what to expect and anticipate and rely on that through it happening consistently over time. The most consistent and intentional you are about creating safety the better your chances of your pet feeling safer faster. But you have to stick to these with consistency, not doing it a little bit here or a little bit there, it won't have the same effect. In fact, the lack of consistency can reinforce insecure attachment because the limbic system can't get a reliable, predictable baseline upon with to feel safe.
- Attunement to your Pet
One of the most important ways to build safety is to attune to your traumatized pet. Attunement basically means that you're tuning in and paying attention to their moves (emotional state and behavior). When they are acting scared, you pay attention, when they are near you or around you, you pay attention, you notice them when they are at your feet as you walk around your house, you listen to their sounds (meows, squalls, barks, whimpers, etc.). People can tell when we are tuned into each other, and so can animals. When an animals knows you're tuned in and pay attention, they are apt to feel more secure because they know if they need your help or need you attention, they know they can get it from you. Knowing a caregiver is paying attention consistently is a sign of caring, which builds a felt sense of safety in the nervous system.
- Attune & Respond!
Another key element, and probably the essential element to shaping secure attachment with your traumatized pet is not only attuning to them, but also responding! When your pet approaches you, stop what you're doing (yes I know that means having to take a moment our of your busy schedule), and look your pet in they eyes and talk to them. This let's them know that you are paying attention and responsive to their call for help or attention. Part of attuning and responding helps your pet let them know you see them. Because Penelope is a small cat in the world of giant people, and often really small animals are skittish in the world of giants, we have learned to help her feel safe by intentionally letting her know we see her when we're walking around and saying her name, so she knows we see her. When we walk around from one room to another, she tends to look up at us and make sure we know she's there so that she can trust she won't be stepped on. Many people tend to move about their homes quickly from one room to another, and can often accidentally trample on their fur baby because they didn't pay attention to the fact that they were under their feet. This can be amplified when you have a really small dog or cat and really tall people living in your house. By simply taking a quick look down to see if any pets are about, you can send a remarkable safety signal to your pet that lets them know it's safe and you aren't going to step on them.
As they build trust, you'll see signs of their willingness to communicate with you increase. Our kitty Penelope used to not be so vocal, but as she's felt more secure, she has started to communicate verbally when she wants something. I have taught my husband that when she walks over to him and meows, to look at her and say, "Yes Penelope?" As she has learned that she can rely on us to consistently respond to her, she has started increasing her communication to us (yes it's in cat language though).
- Attune, Respond & Engage
The key to all relationships is, "A.R.E. you there for me?" In the model of counseling I use, the ARE standards for: Accessible, Responsive and Engaged. When I need you, can I come to you and trust that you're open and available to my approach? When I approach, and I trust that you will respond? And When you respond, can I trust that it's not just an appeasement but an authentic willingness to engage with me to see what's up?
So with our traumatized pets, we tune in, respond, and then engage with them. The example of my own kitty, we've learned that when she asks for our attention to something (could be needing more food, or a problem with the food dishes or littler box) to let her know we see her/hear her, respond to her to see what she wants, and we engage with her by following her communication to see what she's trying to communicate to us. As she's felt more secure, she has started communicating more. She behaves very much like a small child, she'll approach and meow, we tune in, "Yes Penelope?" and then get up from the desk and approach her and engage in a dialogue, "Meow" again, "What do you need Penelope Kitty?" Then she starts walking into another room but looking back at us to make sure we're following. I've learned if she walks away and just stops and arches her back, she wants to be held or pet. If she walks into the kitten, she wants more food or a treat. If she walks into our living room, she wants to play.
It's remarkable how much Penelope has warmed up to both of us over time, and how much she's come out of her shell. I have always had more focused attention on her, so she has felt safe with me faster than my husband. I had to teach him to how to be an A.R.E. caregiver, and she has significantly warmed up to my husband now.
She used to withdraw when guests would come over, she would never come out. Her big brother Spanky, also an exotic short hair, has always been more dog than cat. He's very curious about people, places and things; he has to be in the center of attention if we're congregated near our front door saying our welcomes or goodbyes. But never Penelope in the past. Now she has started to come out and sniff people, or at least be in the same room and check things out if we're having a dinner party. We've even caught her on the dining room chairs checking out the dinner feast when we have holiday gathers (getting braver!)
By simply letting her know that we're open/accessible to her, that we will respond when asks for our attention, and that we will demonstrate interest, care and availability by engaging her, we have successfully started developing secure attachment in our traumatized kitty.
Follow these steps consistently over time and I guarantee you will start to see differences in your traumatized pet.
Recently Dr. Bugatti was featured on Cat Talk Radio by Certified Feline Training & Behavior Specialist Molly Devoss. Watch the episode Here
Dr. Anabelle Bugatti, PhD, LMFT
Is a licensed psychotherapist, author, speaker, EMCEE, and expert on attachment relationships and leadership.