When The Only Symptom Is A Behavior Change

When The Only Symptom Is A Behavior Change


One of the first questions we ask behavior clients is if they’ve done a veterinary checkup. What meets this criteria is generally a physical examination, a CBC blood panel, and maybe a urine check if we’re dealing with “abnormal” urination. Is that enough? This is a story of my journey with my own dog’s sudden increase in aggression.

Aggression “Out of Nowhere”

Paisley and Shira sharing space on the sofa.

Paisley and Shira sharing space on the sofa.

This photo was taken a week before the aggression started. I put this here to show just how drastic the change in behavior was. Paisley is on the bottom. She’s a 7 year old white Border Collie mix. Shira is on the top. She’s a 12 1/2 year old Australian Shepherd. They’d lived together for 6 years, and while there have been scuffles over found food and competition while chasing cats, they lived mostly like this.

A week after this photo was taken Paisley violently attacked Shira while I was rearranging some furniture. I had put my training bag on the floor, and although there shouldn’t have been food in it, it was possible there was still a food smell. I put this first attack under the “found food,” resource guarding that I was familiar with. I chastised myself to be more careful and moved on with rearranging.

The second attack happened four days later with the addition of a new rug. Again, I thought this new rug had precipitated a new form of resource guarding and put the rug away until I had time to deal with the new addition.

Then the third attack happened. All the dogs were sleeping. Paisley woke up, began air scenting, began growling, looked for Shira, who was still asleep, then flew across the room and attacked her. Paisley has done a few more of these, waking from sleep, air scenting, growling, then searching for Shira. This video shows how it starts. Paisley respects the gates, but if they weren’t there she would have gone directly toward Shira who is sleeping behind the camera.

The Vet Check

After the third attack I purchased a few gates and took Paisley to the vet for a check up. She had an ear infection, so they cleaned her up, put a bunch of long lasting goop in the ear, and sent us home. The following day Paisley had numerous aggressive incidents. The gates were up, but she hit one of them pretty hard. I attributed this to the ear pain and began looking at adverse reactions to the ear medication. Nothing quite fit, so I decided to wait it out and see if her behavior got better as the ear got better.

Three days later there another violent outburst toward the gate. I decided we needed more information, so I made another vet appointment to do some blood tests. These tests came out almost perfect. She had an increase in pancreatic enzymes, but without any other symptoms the vets determined she did not have pancreatitis. She had dilute urine, which was unexplained. Coincidentally, there was another huge aggression event the day after the second vet visit. Stress was playing a role in the aggression.

Since she was attacking Shira, I decided to have Shira tested as well. She had the exact same results as Paisley, an increase in pancreatic enzymes and dilute urine. Again, with no other symptoms there was officially nothing wrong with her.

Getting Outside Help

I felt the need to get to work on a solution to stop the aggressive behavior. I called the amazing Sarah Owings to come help me work with some desensitization and counter conditioning with the gates as well as Paisley sharing space with Shira. The problem was there were times when Paisley was almost back to “normal.” Without a definitive trigger, we’d just be working toward a general co-existence between the dogs and they had had that before. Sarah recommended better gates so I could relax a bit more and a pre-consult with a Veterinary Behaviorist to see if that was a route I should take, meaning adding behavior medication to the mix.

In preparation for the behaviorist consult I asked for copies of the lab reports. While the veterinarian had told me the pancreatic enzymes were elevated, on the lab report they were incredibly elevated. I had Paisley tested again, but this time the results were normal. In 24 days the pancreatic enzymes had changed dramatically and I have no idea why.

Paisley did have a few minor symptoms. There were a few days when she initially refused her breakfast, although she eventually ate it. Within a two week period she had vomited twice. However, in all other respects she was perfectly healthy. She was eating, drinking, playing, and eliminating normally. The only change was her increased aggression episodes.

Taking A Break

I decided I really needed more information and didn’t quite know how to get it. My gut kept telling me this was a medical issue, but everyone kept telling me it was a behavioral problem. Telling my story got quite a few recommendations, everything from prong collars and alpha rolls to DS/CC to Prozac. One of the vets told me to rehome Paisley. The Veterinary Behaviorist didn’t see any aggression in the videos at all. It was a very frustrating time.

I began cataloging the conditions under which the aggressive episodes happened, not the aggressive behavior itself. I also began noticing other behavioral changes Paisley was displaying that were more subtle. For instance, the reason the video above was recorded was because Paisley had never taken a nap in that location before. Since that behavior was new, I decided to put up the camera in case there was an additional new behavior. Other new behaviors included an increase in growling as an attention seeking behavior, increased sound sensitivity, and resting in a number of unusual locations.

We had periods of time when everything seemed back to the time of pre-aggression, then something would happen. Some magic combination that I couldn’t quite pinpoint would create an aggressive episode. It seemed to have something to do with prey drive. The most consistent trigger was a cat passing the front porch when the door was open. I’m guessing frustration that she couldn’t get to the cat would cause Paisley to redirect toward Shira, but redirection is a new behavior for Paisley. There was something new in the mix, after all, we had 6 years of happy co-existence with the crazy cat lady living next door. There may be a pain component to the aggression. We do not know what happens biologically when a dog goes into prey drive. Does the stomach clench? Is there an increase in salivation or digestive acid in anticipation of food? There seemed to be something in there more than just redirected aggression, at least I thought so.

A New Vet. A New Dawn.

A month after the second blood check I decided to find a new vet who could help with more than just “she appears healthy.” I found Dr. Lisa Hsuan D.V.M through Sarah Owings and discovered what it’s like to work with a veterinarian who likes to play detective. We rechecked Paisley’s blood and checked her bile. Her blood was again “pristine,” however, her bile values were very high. We did an abdominal ultrasound, which showed abnormalities in the gall bladder, pancreas, stomach, and small intestines. Paisley was positive for pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, and liver malfunction.  Is this what a sick dog looks like?  This is 10 days before the last round of blood work and the ultrasound. The radiologist suggested we might test for Addison’s Disease in the next round of testing after we do the first round of medication and dietary changes.  I’ll keep you updated on her progress.

We Should Never Punish Aggression.

I would hate to think where I would be if I had chosen to silence Paisley’s aggression through punishment. A lot of canine communication is so often considered “undesirable behavior,” and so it’s punished. I get it. When the dog’s behavior is causing fear in the human we want to quell it. In my case, my 13 year old dog was being attacked. It’s completely normal to try and quell that. However, we cannot condone silencing a dog who is trying to communicate. We see the outward behavior and we want to help clients, so we get working on a solution without really knowing what we’re dealing with. We can only change the behavior we see.

My own journey has made me reevaluate what really constitutes medical testing to rule out illnesses. At what point do we keep going with tests versus assuming the dog is healthy and work on behavior modification alone? With so little study behind medical causes of behavior change, sometimes we just have to go with our gut and hope we find something. We need to have this discussion. We need to share cases in which behavior change in the only symptom. We need to start listening to our dogs instead of trying to “fix,” them while we wait for more information.

The Tests.

For those of you interested in the medical tests, they are included in the links below.

Paisley Blood / Urine – Early Dec.

Paisley Pancreatitis – Late Dec.

Paisley Blood / Bile / Urine / Thyroid – Feb

Paisley Ultrasound – Feb

Paisley Pancreatitis – Feb

Shira’s Blood / Urine – Dec

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  • Shari Eisenberg

    This same scenario happened to me years ago with 2 of my dogs. Out of the blue one day, after I was brushing one, she got down from the couch, and the other one attacked her. These 2 dogs had lived together peacefully for 3 years. That was the first, of what seemed to be, unprovoked attacked. After vet visits showed nothing wrong with either of the dogs, I tried to manage the behavior in the home. It escalated very fast. Unfortunately, both dogs took on roles of being the aggressor, and fights were breaking out continuously. It got to the point where one dog had to be crated, while the other dog was out. After the last fight, I had to get surgery on one of my hands from breaking it up. These 2 dogs were never going to live together peacefully again, and the way things were going I was never going to live peacefully again. Anyone who has dogs that don’t get along, knows what I am talking about. My whole world revolved around these 2 dogs. My son was moving into his own place, he took Lexy with him, and I kept Zoey. Lexy went into a home with another dog, and she is living happily ever after with her. There has been no instances. Zoey now lives with 2 other dogs, and has never had any instances with either of them. I don’t know what happened, and I will never know what happened. I chalked it up to, these 2 dogs, for whatever reason, stopped liking each other. I have people that I have known for years, that I no longer like. I respected them enough to do what was right for them, and split them up. My story has a happy ending. THANKFULLY!!!!