Rescue Pets: How to Calm a Dog or Cat That Has Been Abused

Rescue Pets: How to Calm a Dog or Cat That Has Been Abused

by Marina Somma

When you adopt a pet, you're welcoming a new personality into your home, quirks, flaws, fluff and all. Stray rescue pets make wonderful, loving companions, but the sad reality is that many stray rescue and shelter pets experience some form of trauma or abuse before they find a happy home with you, and these kinds of experiences can cause behavioral problems.

Physical and emotional abuse can result in PTSD and other reactions from rescue dogs and cats, so it’s important to make sure you make them feel safe and comfortable in their new home. Read on to learn how to spot signs of trauma and how to address them.

Signs a Pet Has Undergone Trauma

Previously abused dogs display a number of unusual behaviors. However, research shows that some of the most common signs include aggression or fear toward strangers, separation anxiety, persistent barking and more. Traumatized cat symptoms typically look quite similar, as well.

If you've taken all of the right steps to help your pet settle into your home and they continue to show signs of distress, you might need to bring in a professional to provide additional help.

The Fear of Uncertainty

This is going to sound like a bit of a stretch, but hear us out. Many anxious or traumatized dogs have difficulty settling into their new homes because they have no control over anything that’s happening to them. This can even create the phenomenon of learned helplessness, where the animal simply expects bad things to happen to them regardless of the current situation.

To help your pet feel less uncertain of everything happening around them, you need to create a reliable and consistent environment for them to live in. To do that, you’ll need to schedule their day.

Scheduling and Anxious Behavior

By ensuring that you keep a relatively consistent schedule, your dog goes from uncertainty into certainty. They no longer have to worry about what might befall them at any moment because they know and expect what will happen next.

Take your dog on walks and feed them around the same time every day to establish a sense of routine. Try to schedule multiple "positive events" throughout the day as well so your pet has something to look forward to. If your pet has several fun and enriching activities outside of the “usual” spread throughout the day, they have even more positive experiences to look forward to.

Use puzzle feeders, fun games or your pup’s favorite chews during these “positive events” to keep them motivated, calm and happy. This is also a great time to introduce CBD chews, which could also help your pet cope with these external stresses (but be sure to consult your vet first).

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Once your traumatized dog or cat has a stable environment that’s perfect for their healing process, you can begin working on the specific problem behaviors they display by using counterconditioning and desensitization. Here, we’ll address one of the most common and disruptive symptoms of abuse: fear of strangers.

We aren’t going to fix your dog’s fear of strangers — that fear doesn’t simply go away — but we are going to help them learn to cope with that fear. By desensitizing them to the “scary” stimulus (for example, a person) and counterconditioning, we can let them begin to heal in a slow and healthy way.


It sounds long and confusing, but desensitization is incredibly straightforward. You simply expose the animal to a potentially scary stimulus. However, you must do this step in a calm and non-threatening way. For example, start with a person calmly and quietly entering a room, without looking directly at the dog or cat.


Desensitization wouldn’t be effective without counterconditioning. Where desensitization lets your pet get a little more used to the “scary” person, counterconditioning actually turns the situation into a positive one. Have that scary stranger begin quietly dropping little pieces of chicken or cheese on the floor, and suddenly they’ll seem more interesting and less scary. If you’re nervous about undertaking this training yourself, it may be best to bring in the help of a professional trainer or pet psychologist to help guide you through.

Your Rescue Pet’s Special Needs

We won’t lie to you; some pets simply have more traumatic pasts than others. Some display these types of behaviors without undergoing any kind of trauma at all! No matter what they’ve been through, it takes time and effort to help your pet become comfortable in their new home. With some patience and a lot of treats, you can help your stray rescue pet grow into a beloved member of the family.

Marina graduated from Monmouth University with a B.A. in psychology and a B.S. in marine and environmental biology and Policy. She also holds CPDT-KA dog training certification with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. She has over eight years of experience in zoological and domestic animal care and has worked at various facilities all around the country. Marina and her husband, Vincent, own, operate and manage an animal behavior/training and media company based out of Central Florida called petsETC.

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