As both a veterinary technician and a dog trainer I have often heard from leading experts how integral ruling out medical conditions is in treating behavior issues. In all of my cases involving sudden behavior changes, aggression or anxiety, my first recommendation is a full physical exam and possible diagnostics by a veterinarian.
Pain, vision or hearing changes, thyroid and other hormone related conditions can all contribute to behavior. I will say that in most cases I have personally dealt with, there hasn't been an underlying medical condition causing the behavior I've been called in to evaluate.
Recently however, the mind body connection has hit me where I live. Toby, my wonderful husky mix, started exhibiting changes in his behavior about 2 months ago. He has a history of separation anxiety, which was treated with a combination of behavior modification and medication. He has been able to stay home on his own safely for many years and has been weaned off his Prozac successfully for the last year.
Suddenly my calm and happy dog was restless, unable to settle and had become more vocal. He was becoming grumpy with other dogs and had begun barking at my co-workers through his kennel. I began utilizing some relaxation exercises that had helped him in the past, but they didn't ease his symptoms. I made an appointment with our veterinarian during which he received a thorough physical exam. The vet was unable to find any abnormalities. We ran a full blood chemistry including a complete blood cell count, organ profiles, a heart worm and tick born disease screening test and a thyroid test. All of his test results cam back normal.
Over the course of the following weeks Toby began to drink and urinate more than usual. He was hungry all the time, going so far as to steal food off the counters. He was often panting, even when laying down calmly. I once again brought him in to the vet. We took x-rays of his chest and abdomen which were completely normal, aside from pre-existing hip dysplasia and mild spondolosis (age related changes to the spine). A urinalysis and stool sample both came back normal as well.
Toby was placed on a combination of Trazadone and Prozac, which had little to no effect on him. I knew in my gut something was wrong with my dog. I asked my veterinarian if there were any other diagnostics we could run. We took his blood pressure to check for hypertension - he was totally normal. Finally we ran an ACTH stimulation test to check for Chushing's Disease. Toby's symptoms didn't totally fit with the diagnosis, but it was worth checking out.
Yesterday we found out that Toby does indeed have Cushing's Disease. There are two different types of Cushing's, pituitary dependent and adrenal dependent. Pituitary dependent Cushing's is caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. These tumors are inoperable and the treatment is life long medication. Adrenal dependent Cushing's is caused by cancerous tumor growth of the adrenal glands. Treatment for adrenal dependent Cushing's is surgical excision of the adrenal gland.
Next week Toby will be getting an ultrasound of his adrenal glands so that we can determine which type of Cushing's he has and begin treatment. In the mean time we're weaning him off of the Trazadone and Prozac. He is currently laying at my feet panting heavily thanks to this new disease process.
Toby's story is a perfect example of why it's essential to have your dog evaluated for medical conditions when dealing with behavior changes. Toby's behavior could never have been modified with training or medication because it's root cause was physical in nature. Had we not sought the advice of our veterinarian, his disease would have continued to progress causing further physical harm. You know your pet better than anyone, trust your gut and don't stop seeking answers even if it feels like you've hit a dead end - the answer is out there.
I am saddened by Toby's serious medical condition, but so happy that we caught it early. My wife and I will do everything in our power to keep him happy and healthy. This special boy has been our loyal friend, my exceptional demo dog, and has helped to heal the hearts of many anxious and aggressive dogs. Toby is irreplaceable, and we will never stop fighting for him.
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.