Thursday, February 5, 2015

Behavior Problem or Medical Problem?

The sweater in question.
Lola hates having her nails trimmed. Or her feet touched. Or, heck, even her legs, and it all came to a head a few months back when I was trying to make a fleece sweater for her without a pattern. This necessitated a lot of putting it on and taking it off as I worked out the alterations, and by the end of the day, Lo had nailed me right in the arm. She was D-O-N-E with this being touched stuff.

I've worked with dogs before who didn't like to be touched, so I got to work doing handling training. I started doing exercises to help Lola associate being touched with awesome things. I moved slowly, always watching her body language to ensure I didn't rush her. And things... well, they didn't really get better.

Oh, sure, sometimes she was okay with it, but other days she was immediately grumpy again. I also noticed that she got pretty grumbly when the boy-dogs would rough house too close to her. Not touching her, just near her. It was like she was telling them to keep their distance.

The first rule of behavior club is...
You know where this is going, right? Yup, it was time for a vet check. This is a pretty basic step when dealing with behavior problems, especially ones that crop up suddenly. Pretty much every trainer, behaviorist, and blogger I know recommends going to the vet to check for health problems before undertaking a training program.

Easy said, but harder to remember, especially when the problem sort of creeps up on you. Lola wasn't suddenly aggressive (she's not aggressive at all, actually), she was just acting a bit weird. And anyway, my dogs are no stranger to the vet. We go in for regular well checks, and I'm not afraid to have small things checked out in between. I also watch my dogs pretty closely so I know what's normal and what's not. I catch things early.

Like a needle in a haystack
Off to the vet we went. I mentioned my concerns, and our vet agreed that it sounded behavioral. The problem, of course, is that it's really hard to pinpoint a possible problem. Lola wasn't showing any stiffness. There was no limping, no panting, no licking or biting a certain area. In other words, this was a shot in the dark.

I know I'm not alone in that. I've heard plenty of people say that their vets didn't find anything on exam. I don't think that's the vet's fault at all. After all, our dogs can't tell us if and where they hurt, and I don't know about you, but I do not have the cash reserves to do x-rays and ultrasounds just to rule out a hunch. Still, because Lola's a basset hound, and thus acondroplastic (a type of dwarfism associated with malformed bones and cartilage), I thought there must be some pain in there.

Getting the most out of your exam
Now, I'm not a vet, but I've paid for a lot of vet care over the years, and in my experience, there are three main causes of pain:

1. Illness or injury
This one is probably the easiest to find clinically. Inspecting your dog for cuts or scrapes and taking vital signs can tell you a lot about what might be going on. Acute illness or injury tends to show up quickly and is therefore not usually mistaken for a behavioral problem. Still, sometimes there are sicknesses that fly under the radar. To get at these, regular lab work can help. The exact tests that are done will depend on your dog and the lifestyle risks unique to your situation, but in my experience, blood work (including a tick panel) and a urinalysis can tell you a lot.

2. Musculo-skeletal issues
Joint or muscle problems are much harder to pick up on, even with more obvious signs. Five or six years back, I noticed that Maisy had a very slight, occasional limp coupled with excessive panting, even when it wasn't hot. I took her to the vet, but they couldn't recreate the problem, so they told me not to worry. I ended up taking Maisy to a chiropractor, and later a doggy massage therapist, which did a lot to alleviate the pain.

3. Teeth problems
Dude, toothaches hurt. Unfortunately, I think mouth pain in dogs is more common than we think. Maisy is eight now, so when she started to slow down just a tad, I didn't think much of it. It's not like she got lethargic or anything; she was still playing and eating, just a bit quieter. At her well vet exam, the vet saw a chipped tooth and recommended a dental, but didn't think it was urgent. Well. When she got in there, it turns out Maisy had not one but two abscessed teeth that shattered when the vet went to pull them. Less than two weeks later, Maisy was full of puppy energy again, playing with the boy-dogs, and even doing a bit of tug!

Don't be afraid to try pain meds
I'm lucky to have a great relationship with a great vet. She did an incredibly thorough exam, and in so doing, found that Lola has very mild luxating patellas. So mild, in fact, that we aren't convinced that it was causing the possible pain; I suspect that due to Lo's front assembly, long back, and history of being overweight, she may have arthritis.

Either way, I requested a trial of pain meds. I wasn't expecting much from it, and I kind of think the vet was humoring me when she prescribed them, but the results were amazing. After a week of regular pain meds, both the grumbling about the boy-dogs and her grouchiness about being touched reduced by at least 75%! Of course, now we're left trying to figure what's causing the pain and how to address that. (That's a whole other post, of course!)

What about you guys?
Have you had a medical problem masquerading as a behavior problem? What did it end up being? And how did you find out? 

3 comments:

Kristen said...

After months of not clipping nails because he wouldn't let me, I finally thought to have my almost 14 year old dog lie on his back for nail trims. Easy! Now he's fine! His bad front legs would hurt too much if I tried to do nail trims from a stand and he had to balance/put weight on 3 legs. Problem solved!

Jenna Z said...

Hey, letting you know I nominated you for the Liebster Award: http://corgipants.blogspot.com/2015/02/liebster-award.html No pressure though, I know some people don't like blog award so don't feel bad if you'd rather not post.

Windsong Therapy and Wellness said...

You did not mention a fascial exam. Dogs do not suddenly develop behavior problems. They are symptoms of something else going on or the dog is trying to tell you something. An experienced animal fascial specialist (Fascial Integrative Therapy, CranioSacral Therapy, Myofascial Release) can interpret the non-verbal cues and correct the fascial problems that may be behind these issues. We see many animals whose owners think it is a behavior problem that they have begun relieving themselves in the house. We normally find fascial restrictions which are not allowing the animal enough time to make it outside. After treatment and with understanding from the owner, everyone is feeling better. An animal does not have to limp or look stiff to be in pain. Ask a person with fibromyalgia how it feels to be touched. There are fascial issues that may cause intense pain that cannot be detected by x-ray or standard veterinary tests. Therapy can alleviate some of most of the pain thereby correcting the behavior issue. A vet and a fascial specialist should be your FIRST stops before you look toward behavior modification because you may be causing your pet more pain and distress by ignoring their problem.