As your new pet adjusts to your home, a period of post-adoption jitters is totally normal. However, there are some cases where these jitters stem from more than just new surroundings and a new family. Yes, unfortunately, we’re talking about the fearful feelings that are common aftereffects of abuse.
Dealing with these situations can be overwhelming, but with patience and hard work, you can make this transitional period easier for you and your pet. Ensuring that your pet can adjust to a healthy and happy life with a new family starts with a solid relationship built on a strong foundation of trust.
Signs of Former Abuse
When people think of abused pets, they imagine a fearful and jittery animal, but many professionals argue there are no consistent signs of abuse among pets. According to Dr. Tammie Pearce from Ask.Vet, there are a variety of reasons why pets are fearful or lash out in uncomfortable situations. Those can vary from being naturally shy to having a lack of socialization.
But in some cases, pet owners will notice a fear of a specific object. Since pets associate objects with a positive or negative memory, seeing an object that caused them pain may draw a violent reaction.
“Our dog Muggsy would cower whenever any type of stick was near her or if a foot was extended,” said pet owner Diana Hart. “She is thriving with us now because she has lots of love and no violence of any kind.”
Unless it was directly reported, many pet owners have no way of knowing if their pet was taken from an abusive situation. If you suspect your pet was abused, be sure to remain patient as your pet grows accustomed to a new home. While this transition may take longer than you want it to, be assured it is well worth the time and effort.
Gaining Their Trust
There is always an adjustment period when a new pet is brought into the home. And if that pet was formerly abused or is naturally fearful, taking the time to ensure this period runs smoothly is of the utmost importance.
“I don’t expect any of these animals to value me or trust me when we first meet,” said Sherry Woordard, animal behaviorist. “It is my job to help them from the beginning to stay safe and keep myself and all others safe as we interact.”
Fearful animals, whether due to personality or difficult or harmful situations, require additional care to help them adjust to their new home. Try to find something that motivates them, like treats or toys, and use those items as positive reinforcement for good behavior.
And on the other side of that coin, identifying what causes a negative or fearful reaction and working on alleviating these tensions can tremendously help a pet adjust to your home. For example, if you notice a strong case of separation anxiety, work on establishing a schedule to show that you will return when you leave the house.
“Without management during the first months, they would be more fearful and eliminate in places that we don’t want them to,” Woordard continues. “Many would continue to avoid getting close to us, which makes it more difficult to build trust.”
Interacting With a Fearful Pet
As you begin interacting with your pet, Dr. Pearce suggests physically getting on the same level as him and offering a small amount of food or a treat. If your pet approaches, be sure to stay calm and let the pet take the treat without any interaction from you.
If your pet’s body language shows fear, back off and work slowly at your interactions. Be sure to never push your pet into a situation where he or she is uncomfortable. Your pet will take the lead and when he or she is ready, your pet will approach you. And remember – if you, your family or overzealous visitors (*cough cough* animal-loving kids) force your pet into unwanted interaction, it will set back any trust-building progress you have made.
Providing a Safe Space
Some pets prefer to leave a situation when they encounter something or someone they are not comfortable with. Create a safe space for your pet to provide them with an escape when they are overwhelmed.
To create a safe space, find an area of the house that your pet seems to run to when scared. Cats tend to prefer hiding in a quiet shelter when they are scared, so try placing a cardboard box or similar shelter in a quiet area of a room. If your pet has a toy or blanket they tend to use when scared, place that in the safe space.
For your dog, establish a place that is all for him. Depending on what your dog prefers, that may be anything from his kennel to a doggy bed. Whatever place your dog tends to go to when scared is the ideal place for your safe space. Just like with a cat, place any toys or blankets your dog may use when scared.
When your pet is in a safe space, do not interact with him or her. Let your pet relax and decide when he or she is ready to leave that space.
Integrating Your Pet
Formerly abused pets require stability and lots of care, and can be a tall order for some pet owners. If you are experiencing troubles with this process, reach out to a pet behaviorist for help. They can assess your pet’s individual behaviors and will have other helpful tips and steps that you can follow.
Helping your pet overcome and heal from challenging situations is a difficult and long process, but if you are able and willing to put in the time and effort to care for your pet, it is highly rewarding.
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.