Don’t Touch Me There!

Louisa Beal, DVM

Mario, a West Highland White Terrier had snapped at a two year old girl.  If Mario couldn’t be trusted around children, his owners would have to get rid of him.

The knee jerk response to this would be to try to modify the behavior of the dog.  Mario’s behavior is definitely unacceptable.  A traditional trainer might punish Mario if he growled or snapped at the girl.  A trainer versed in learning theory might pair the presence of the child with things that Mario loves.  Each of these methods might make a small difference in the short run.  Neither of these methods addresses the underlying cause of Mario’s aggression.  Mario had an ear infection that not only made him grumpy, but hurt intensely when his ear was grabbed.  Even the slightest possibility that his ear might be grabbed sent Mario into his defense mode.   That slight possibility included a toddler coming happily toward him.

If Mario is punished each time the child approaches, he learns to be even more fearful of her.  He may not growl anymore because he has been reprimanded for that, but it will not stop him from snapping or even biting if the child hurts him.  Because of this, I never punish a growl.  This will only take away any warning that the dog is able to give.

Pairing the presence of the child with good things may not help in the long run either, because the pain is still present.  The advantage of this technique is that it doesn’t make the situation worse.

Pain alters behavior.  For most animals, pain will cause a decrease in the amount of interaction they have with their environment.  Lethargy, withdrawal and decreased appetite are all signs that an animal may be in pain.  Most pet owners recognize this, and will make an appointment with their veterinarian if their pet does any of these things.  I am reminded of a cartoon I saw that illustrates this.  A worried owner hovers over a fuzzy form on the exam table.  The veterinarian says “Well, it’s lethargic and not eating because it’s a slipper.”

But what of the “non-slipper” response to pain?  What if the animal defends itself?  Growling, lunging, snapping and biting are all possible responses an animal can have when in pain. Growling is there for a reason.  It is a dog or cat’s way of communicating that all is not well.  It is the time for the owner to stop whatever they are doing and find out why the dog or cat is upset.  Changing the situation can avoid the progression from a growl to a snap or bite.   It is not just giving in to the pet.

Even the sweetest pet in the world can lash out when it hurts. Imagine if you were in a country where no one understood your language.  Imagine that you have been in an automobile accident and the ones there to help you cannot understand you.  Imagine that they are pulling you from the wreck and your broken foot gets caught.  I would imagine the first thing would be to yell in pain.  If they persisted in trying to pull you out, I imagine you might do anything you could to get them to stop.  If screaming (or growling) didn’t do it, you might go so far as to hit or even bite to get them to stop.

Once there has been a painful experience, then just the anticipation of a repeat experience can trigger aggression.  If you have never had an ear infection, you may not understand the full implication of this.  The ear canal swells, and there is no place for the swelling to go.  It is an intense, throbbing pain that radiates to the whole side of the head.

I once had an ear infection so severe that I went to the emergency room.  The physician decided that the best treatment was to insert a wick into my ear to drain the fluid.  As he pushed the wick into my ear with a long metal probe and without the benefit of anesthesia, the pain was so intense that I was alternately crying and fainting.  I wouldn’t do that to a dog.   I never went back to that doctor, and my only regret is that I didn’t bite him.

So, a dog that generally endures a child’s pummeling may not be so accommodating if it is in pain.  Unfortunately for the dog, even when a child is causing the dog pain, if the dog bites the child, it is legally seen as the dog’s fault.  It is up to us to protect our dogs from children as well as the children from the dogs.

Cats are often better at running and hiding than dogs are.  Cats may, however, attack their owners if they become uncomfortable.  One common cause of this is sensitive skin.  Many cats love to sit on people’s laps, and people love to stroke their soft fur.  But the area of the back, just in front of the tail is prone to dry skin and cats with a little extra poundage on them can have a hard time getting to that spot to groom.  If it bothers the cat to be touched there, they may not growl, but send other signs that it is uncomfortable for them.   A slight rippling of the skin or a flick of the tail can indicate that discomfort.  The cat may not really want to move, because it enjoys the warm lap.  All it wants is for the petting to stop.  But if the person is oblivious to those subtle warning signs, the cat may have no recourse but to grab the hand with tooth or claw to make them stop.

Other common causes of pain that can cause aggression come from the bones and muscles.  Arthritis is the inflammation of joints, and that inflammation causes pain.  Arthritis most commonly affects the hips, but it can affect any joint.  Elbows, shoulders, knees and all the joints along the back bone can hurt if touched in the wrong way.

Intervertebral disc disease is a common source of pain especially for long backed dogs like dachshunds.   This happens when the cushion between the vertebrae (the intervertebral disc) degenerates and ruptures into the spinal cord.  The first nerve fibers to be affected are the ones that carry signals for pain, thus the first sign of disc disease is pain.  If the disc ruptures further, then the nerves are damaged, the pain stops and paralysis sets in.  This paralysis can be reversed if treated quickly, which is why it is a good idea not to overlook behavior changes in your pet.

Ear problems, eye problems and dental problems can not only cause pain, but can alter the pet’s perceptions and this alter their behavior.  Are they more jumpy or anxious or non-responsive?  Think medical first, behavioral second. My rule of thumb is that any behavior change in an adult animal should have an examination by a veterinarian.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *