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Diagnosing and Treating Aggressive Behavior in Older Dogs

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This article originally appeared on Dr. Mahaney’s The Daily Vet column on PetMD as Diagnosing and Treating Aggressive Behavior in Older Dogs.

In case you are not already aware, I have another weekly pet-health column inspired by the less serious topic of celebrity lifestyle. The portrayal of celebrities and their pets in the media sends a variety of messages — positive, negative, and in-between — to viewers on a worldwide basis. My veterinary spin on celebrities, pets, and health is called Pet-Lebrity News and is featured onpet360.com. Come visit me there, and if you are interested, please sign up for convenient e-mail delivery.

Well, I always enjoy the chance to have a dialogue with my readers and was very enthused to receive an e-mail from Christine after she read my article, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Kim Richards Attempts Training with New Dog. Christine sought guidance on her own dog Lucy’s behavior in the following message:

Hi, I am a Real Housewives fan and I read your article on Kim's pit, Kingsley. I rescued a female pit about four years ago. At the time I got her she was over two years old. She is an extremely sweet dog, but severely unsocialized with humans and fearful of strangers. She loved whoever was in her family circle but was extremely scared of new people, especially teenaged boys.

Ironically, she does very well with other dogs, especially small dogs. I have fostered some small dogs and she did very well with them. I have done my best and she has done wonders in these years. However, she is still very cautious of strangers (aloof as you would call it). She never attacks strangers, actually shows interest in a lot of them, but shows signs of stress when meeting them at first.

The thing is, she is extremely good looking and cute, and so calm, and she has a very sweet temperament. People are drawn to her and because I have trained her so well. She doesn't bark or act aggressively toward dogs and people in public, sits at my side, and is very affectionate to me; people assume she is extremely friendly and are drawn to her.

I always corrected her and put her on time outs, but she is a powerful dog and I don't want anyone to get hurt. I learned that she needs time to calm down, so she will go to a designated area (like her bed) until she is calm and then is able to interact with guests. I don't let strangers pet her, as in the beginning when I first got her she would show interest in strangers by sniffing them, but as soon as they went to pet her she would snap at them. I feel this is something she learned prior to coming to me: people will leave me alone if I snap. I felt this made her feel powerful, so simply she is allowed when I or the person who wants to say hi shows interest.

In the beginning I did muzzle her, but she didn't remain calm and would pant with it on. When I didn't muzzle her, she would remain calm and still. All of this is a whole lot better now, but I would like to know, from all of what I told you, what should be my next steps in her rehabilitation? I heard from numerous people that because of her age (she was over two when we got her) this will always be an issue, that she will always be weary of strangers, and simply since her aggression only comes when strangers try to pet her, don't let strangers pet her. They have been right, I must admit.

Just a short story. My niece came to visit. As soon as she walked in the door Lucy’s hair went up on her back, her tail went between her legs, she lowered her head (a sign of submission), she sniffed my niece’s feet, began to wag her tail, and then brushed up against my niece. I told my niece “no touch” and “no eye contact.” After about a day or two, Lucy was best of friends with my niece. Because of her scruff being raised I have to be very cautious; however I do have difficulty determining when it's appropriate for others to pet her or when to gauge stress levels.

What is your advice to help me with my pit, Lucy?

Thank you, Christine, for your question. Behavior issues can be challenging for all involved family members, as the familiar dynamic of interaction is altered by the undesirable conduct of the pet. My top recommendation in managing bad behaviors that an owner can’t sufficiently control is to bring a veterinarian into the scene to provide consultation from a medical perspective.

In general, if an animal is prone to bad behavior, owners must recognize the potential contributions of underlying health conditions. The history you provide will be paired with your veterinarian’s physical examination to establish a series of differential diagnoses.

Besides a physical exam, diagnostics may be needed to work out the potential reasons for a pet’s behavior problems. Useful diagnostics include blood/urine/fecal testing, radiographs (X-rays), ultrasound, MRI, CT, etc.

There are many conditions that can adversely affect the behavior of our canine and feline companions, some of which cannot be observed with an untrained eye, including those affecting the following body systems:

Endocrine — hyperthyroidism (more common in cats), hypothyroidism(more common in dogs), hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease), kidneyand liver disease, obesity, etc.
Urinary — urinary crystals, protein, infection, etc.
Immune — cancer (lymphoma, brain tumors, etc.), allergic diseases (seasonal and nonseasonal environment and food allergies affecting the digestive tract, skin, etc.), immune-mediated diseases (IMHA, IMTP, etc.), etc.
Musculoskeletal — arthritis, traumatic joint injury, fractures,intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), etc.
Oral Cavity — Periodontal disease (inflammation/infection of the teethand their associated structures), abnormally developed teeth, dental trauma, etc.
Reproductive — Sex-hormone related issues (intact male and female dogs,ovarian remnant syndrome, estrus cycle, etc.), pyometra, etc.
Other
Basically, any disease condition my patients face can correlate with one or multiple behavior changes. If your pet is cleared of the concern for health problems contributing to objectionable conduct, then a behavior problem can be appropriately diagnosed.

Pet owners can work with a reputable trainer or pursue a consultation with aBoard Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. The veterinary behavior consultation is an involved and thorough process, but it truly helps teach owners to positively handle their pet’s undesirable behaviors and may even incorporate psychopharmaceuticals (behavior modifying medications) when appropriate.

In the case of Lucy’s behavior, it sounds as though you have figured out a system that works for her, to permit her to calm down and feel comfortable when meeting new people. Great job!

Yet, as Lucy is an adult dog who is on the cusp of being a senior (she should be around six years now if you got her four years ago at the suspected age of two), make sure your veterinarian is aware of her behavior, has explored her body for underlying health concerns, and has taken the steps to resolve all underlying disease.

Thank you for reading this article. Your questions and comments are completely welcome (I’ll respond).
Please feel free to communicate with me through Twitter (@PatrickMahaney) and follow my adventures in veterinary medicine by liking Patrick Mahaney: Veterinarian Acupuncture Pain Management for Your Pets on Facebook.
Copyright of this article (2014) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.

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