"Nacho is suffering from PTSD," the ER vet said. "Specifically, raccoon-induced PTSD."
I was shocked. I had never heard of an animal being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but from what I knew of the symptoms, he certainly had many of them. My mind flashed to an old Frasier episode where Eddie the Jack Russell had to see a doggie shrink for depression. Was this our future?
Nacho, our red heeler cattle dog, had stopped eating and drinking for three days. He was uninterested in interacting with his stuffed toys, and he was listless even when asked to chase the ball, an activity that was usually one of his reasons for existence. In 2009, my sheltie, who was like a child to me, acted like this and was diagnosed with lymphoma; that experience caused my insides to knot over Nacho's new behavior. I didn't want to go through that agony again. I told myself to remain positive — that he'd snap out of it — while quietly squashing the fear that grew each day as he refused to engage with me or with life.
On day four, with no fire in Nacho's eyes, I called the ER vet's office. They told me to bring him in immediately. They were sure he was dehydrated at the very least.
During the consultation, the doctor asked what happened right before the behavior change started. I explained that at 10 p.m. a few nights before, I stomped on the deck to scare off any critters that might be below before letting Nacho out for a "last call." Nothing seemed to move or run through the yard, so I reached back and opened the sliding glass door. Nacho bolted down the steps as usual, but then he let out a loud snarl followed by angry barks. He was face to face with a huge raccoon.
After a second, he ran up the stairs, tail between his legs, back into the house and curled into the fetal position on the family room floor. My heart broke for him as I could feel how traumatized he was and how he must have been reliving an attack from a few months before.
During a mid-summer night, just before midnight, I let Nacho out the back sliding glass door to do his business. The night sky was almost moon-less, and I was in a rush as I had a 2 a.m. flight and needed to get to the airport. I didn't stand on the deck and watch him, but I had left the glass door open a few inches, as I finished packing a few things in my carry-on.
He ran down the wooden stairs and barked an angry, repetitive bark and snarled. Something hissed and made its own growling noises. I bolted from the house, iPhone in hand, trying to turn on its flashlight app to see what was going on below the deck.
Nacho faced four huge raccoons that were lunging at him, trying to claw and bite him. He fought back fiercely, exposing his teeth. It was the most threatening I had ever seen him.
My heart thumped in my chest as I screamed for him to get up the stairs and back into the house. My stepdaughter and her boyfriend yelled, too, but none of us wanted to get between the animals, especially since we couldn't tell if the raccoons were rabid.
Finally, all but one of the raccoons ran towards the woods, bleeding across the lawn as they went. That last raccoon, the largest, lunged at Nacho's face over and over. But Nacho, having had enough, snarled one last time in the raccoon's face and fled up the stairs past him to safety.
Inside the house, he lay on his side, panting hard, while we checked him for injuries. He had lacerations on his nose, by his eyes, on his legs, and on his neck. We bundled him in towels and drove him to the ER vet. Once he was checked in, I called to cancel my flights. I also called my husband, who was working in Singapore to tell him I wouldn't be joining him as planned; he was disappointed but worried about the dog. I felt no disappointment at the time as I was still riding the adrenaline rush.
Nacho had some minor surgery to repair wounds and came home the next day stitched in a few places and wearing a cone, which he hated. We gave him antibiotics, painkillers, and special treatment while he healed, and we went to follow-up appointments. We also checked for raccoons each time he warily went outside.
But apparently we did not check well enough, since here we were again less than six months later. This time, Nacho got a thorough exam and IV fluids. He had no visible wounds or health issues. The vet said all of his wounds were mental and emotional. He was depressed, so she also gave him some clomipramine, an antidepressant, used to treat separation anxiety in pets, and told me to bring him back if he still hadn't eaten or drunk anything after two days on the medication, or if he showed no improvement in his energy levels.
According the Mayo Clinic, "Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event."
I knew a bit about the disorder since an uncle of mine who had served time in the military was a sufferer. And apparently treatment for humans and canines is similar.
Treatment for dogs with PTSD, according to the Integrated Veterinary Care Journal, may involve drug therapy (clomipramine, fluoxetine [which is Prozac], and amitriptyline are most common and all are antidepressants), exercise and play therapy, eating high-quality (even homemade) food, taking herbs, getting acupuncture, or even being exposed to appeasing pheromones.
Since Nacho wouldn't eat food or drink water, I started making him smoothies full of dog-friendly veggies, of which he'd drink about a half-cup at a time. We also fed him hamburger and boneless chicken breast to get in some protein. We coaxed him to play and run after balls and take short walks. The energy expended seemed a bit like a job, and each day I felt the tension of waiting for positive changes.
After four days on the antidepressant, he suddenly he perked up and returned to pre-raccoon Nacho.
Today, we are ever-vigilant for raccoons, and if he even glimpses one, his flight reflex kicks in and he heads the other way, tail between his legs. And that's OK with me if my usually brave dog acts like a coward as long as it keeps him safe and happier.