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When a behavior problem isn't a behavior problem

When pain leads to aggression

Yesterday, a client whom I hadn't seen in a couple months sent me an email asking to schedule another appointment. This surprised me, as things were going very well with her dog, and she was happy the last time I saw her. In her email, she said that her dog had recently begun snapping at everyone in the household when startled. It was so bad that she ended up in the ER to get stitches after he bit her lip when she startled him. He had also started snapping at the cat and tensing up when the cat was near.

Alarm bells started ringing in my head that this dog was in pain. I counseled the client to take her dog to the vet ASAP to check for pain and to use management in the house in the meantime. My client took her dog to the vet that very same day. When I followed up with her, she said the vet told her that her dog's back knees were popping out of place when he walked. During the exam, the dog bared his teeth and growled when the vet gently lifted his back legs to check the hips. They took x-rays and sent them to a specialist to be analyzed. In the meantime, he's on pain pills.

So often, people mistake their dog's reaction to pain for misbehavior, vengefulness, spite, or some other form of retaliation. The truth is, pain is the number one cause of sudden changes in behavior. This is especially true in older dogs as they start to develop arthritis or other ailments. One change I often see with older dogs is a sudden reactivity to thunder when they had always ignored it. The thunder startles them, which causes their muscles to suddenly contract, triggering pain in their joints. They then associate the sound of the thunder with feeling pain and start barking when they hear it. Dogs mask pain very well, making it easy to overlook, especially in younger dogs. My client's dog is only 4 years old.

My take-home message for you:

  • If your dog has a sudden, unexplained change of behavior, take them to the vet to get checked for pain, even if your dog is young.

  • Make sure that every time you take your dog in for its annual checkup, your vet checks for pain.

  • Do routine labs and x-rays yearly. I got baseline x-rays for my dogs last year, and it turned out that my 1.5-year-old male has arthritis. Because I learned this early in his life, I was able to start the appropriate supplements right away. Hopefully this will prevent much worsening as he gets older.

  • Get pet insurance. Thanks to pet insurance, my dogs' x-rays were paid for. (I use Embrace.)

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