The Behavior Wellness Exam

In dealing with dog and cat behavior cases in the home, I have to attempt to diagnose the cause of a behavioral issue, like aggression, based on the reports of the owners and the assessment that I can make of the pet.  In many cases, there is a clear history of a traumatic incident resulting in the problem behavior (a dog who is hit by a car may act aggressive towards cars, or be fearful of them).  In other cases, there are clear behavioral histories that lead, more often than not, to the behavior issue (a puppy raised in isolation in a back yard reacts poorly to other dogs as it gets older).  But in other cases, it is a mystery.  There is no available history that leads us to a conclusion about what might be going on.

On the flip side, in a (to me) surprising number of cases, I arrive to see a dog (or cat) which is obviously ailing.  The clearest example is a dog with a limp, although frequently it takes a keen and very subtle eye to detect a limp that a dog is trying to hide.  I suspect that an aggressive dog with a limp is in pain.  Or it becomes clear to me in my assessment that the animal is vision-impaired, or of extremely low weight. Another common one is inappropriate urination in a pet with a urinary tract infection.  These have become a veterinary issue, and I immediately stop and request a “behavior wellness” exam of one form or another.  No amount of behavior modification, or even psychoactive medication is going to relieve a behavior issue with a “physiogenic” cause.

What are the exams I request?   A very common one is, of course, testing for urinary tract infections.  In fact, we require one, or more, of these before we even see these cases for the first time.  In cases of malaise or serious weight loss, we ask to have the pet examined for infections, cancer, or parasites: basically, back to the vet to figure out what’s going on, before we try to tackle the behavioral consequences of the problem.

Another very common exam is what I refer to as a musculo-skeletal exam: a thorough exam of the skeleton and especially the joints: I see a not-insignificant number of cases of aggression in dogs with arthritis.  Sometimes, but not always, we see a sensitivity of the dog to handling of its hindquarters or rear legs (hip issues) but we also see (too many) cases of sensitivity to the neck region, resulting from overly enthusiastic use of “leash pop” punishment techniques.  These often reveal themselves to be bulging or herniated cervical disks or arthritis.

Another assessment that I occasionally ask for is a sensory system evaluation: vision and hearing.  Animals that are losing their sensory system sensitivity frequently become much more anxious, resulting in a lower threshold for aggression or fearful behavior (eg. inappropriate urination).   I have “discovered” a number of cases of (usually partial) deafness or blindness in my patients.

Finally, and less often, some very characteristic forms of aggression can be a sign of an endocrine disorder, usually either Addison’s or Cushing’s disease.  In cases in which I suspect this, I request an endocrine panel, which is a somewhat involved procedure, requiring fasting and repeat visits.  I reserve these requests for situations which have not been responsive to behavior modification, where I was really convinced “be-mod” should work.  The syndromes are more common in older animals, and I use that information to make my decision about the request as well.

In every case, if I make a request to the client to return to their veterinarian for additional assessments, I am always happy to discuss my concerns with the vet, to listen to their suggestions, and integrate my observations and suggestions for changes with theirs.  Only through a team approach to these issues: owner, vet, and behavior specialist, can we provide the best service and make the life of the companion animal the very best that it can be!

About drjimha

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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