Originally written in 2010, this article now includes an updated resource for diagnostic testing.
Ten years ago when my ten-year-old beagle started barking at us at the dining room table, I remember looking at her and thinking “I don’t think so, barking at the table is not going to happen.” It was strange behavior for her. But she was a high-maintenance dog, very creative and always famished (as any confirmed beagle is), so we ignored the barking and it extinguished. When it came back a few months later, and other symptoms started to appear (physical symptoms, not in the behavior category), we went to the vet.
When Kaiya wanted to jump up to see the new baby, we weren’t surprised. She’s been a jumping dog since the day I met her. My other two dogs took a look at the baby, a sniff at the baby, then they left and took a nap. Kaiya wanted more. She is a terrier, after all. She would not give up trying to see the baby. It was the first stressor we put on her in a long time and she didn’t handle it well. As the day progressed, she never settled down. Everything we tried that had been effective in the past was not working. By late afternoon she had a pretty scary fight with our younger dog over a game of tug which was meant for distraction and exercise.
As time went by the fighting continued, I was physically and emotionally drained. I thought about it all the time. It consumed my life. I started blaming the dogs for acting crazy, then I blamed myself for not being vigilant with training and slacking off while I trained everybody else’s dog.
I just could not figure out why they were fighting. It is the thing I feared most about living with three feisty females and the thing I work at every day to keep at bay. Over and over I wondered, was my training lacking? Have I not done my job? I got upset, made speeches about how I can’t live with fighting dogs (turned out to be my ego in that one) and I continued to miss that one option.
As I took myself out of it (after all, it’s not about me) it all started to come into clarity. Then I remembered that night she walked up to me and barked. No reason, just a small “hey I’m here” bark. I started to think about her being really hungry lately, more than usual. Then she barked a few more times, for no reason, when everything was quiet, just a little “hello, I’m trying to tell you something.”
We put it all together in the next 24 hours. She’d lost a little weight, she started barking for no reason at us, she was hungry and licking breakfast bowls well after they were empty, and now she is revved up after exercise and fighting with her sister.
Until the fight, these all looked like day-to-day behaviors, until I put them all together. Maybe she doesn’t feel well, maybe her thyroid is off, which I know can cause aggression in dogs who are otherwise friendly and sweet. She has been fine with her little dog sisters’ obnoxious behavior for almost two years, why now was she intolerant.
When Your Dog’s Behavior Changes, It May Mean Something More Serious
It’s important to look at your pets with an open mind and open heart. They can’t talk to us verbally. They have more of an opportunity to communicate with us, if we are open to them. If after they try to tell us, we decide they are misbehaving; that leaves no opportunities for other options.
If your dog is not usually a barker and all of a sudden starts barking at you, listen. Most likely they are trying to tell you something. If your dog doesn’t usually beg for food, then all of a sudden starts counter surfing or hanging out a little closer than usual to the cupboards, PAY ATTENTION. New ravenous hunger can be the symptom of some illnesses. Now I know ALL dogs are always hungry, but once you determine you own dog’s habits and patterns you will know when it’s different.
As I was gathering info about her to try and fix these new “behavior” issues, it went into my inventory. Had I only paid attention to the behavior and her counter-surfing reoccurring after two years, I may have missed the pattern for even longer. As it was, we still took awhile to put it all together. Something that I could have thought to be behavioral turned out to be a medical issue. Putting all the components together allowed us to figure out part of a larger health issue.
Besides the barking and fighting there are other things that could bring red flags. If they start stealing food that for years before just lay on the counter untouched by dog feet, it may be severe hunger (more than normal dog severe hunger). This can be a sign of many illnesses. Excessive thirst, accidents in the house from a house trained dog, lack of tolerance for otherwise tolerated events and/or dogs or people, going off to sleep alone when he’s always hanging out with you. If your dog shows signs of stiffness for no apparent reason, be watchful. Avoiding crunchy hard foods or rubbing her face to the ground could both be dental issues.
Another way to stay in touch is to literally stay in touch. It’s important to sit with them and run your hands through their coats. When you do this often you will know when something shows up that is different. It acts as a great bonding time, time to get your dog used to touch, and time to learn what your healthy dog feels like. Besides lumps and bumps often signs of illness and disease can be found in a change of coat texture or temperature. Dogs can get greasy feeling fur or shedding during times they don’t usually shed. Some dogs have benign fatty tumors that are usually harmless, but if you check often you will know if they change, grow or move.
It’s great to have young healthy dogs. We expect health issues when they get old. I made the mistake of being closed to the thought that one of my younger ones may get sick. I planned that Kona the beagle would be with us 16 years and always at my side. I was young then; I know better now. When she got sick suddenly at ten years old and died ten weeks later she had many symptoms that seemed behavioral. It took a long time to figure it all out. I was a dog mom rookie, and I was lucky that it wouldn’t have mattered if I found it earlier, BUT sometimes it does.
To have the knowledge to catch something before it gets worse is invaluable. To have what I considered “age appropriate expectations” could get us in trouble. Our dogs needs us to be open minded and opened eyed for their signals. It’s good to know what can happen with older dogs, but the same as with humans, dogs get sick at all ages and with all illnesses and diseases. Sometimes their behavior is the only way we can tell. Whenever they have a change in behavior, pay attention. They tell us in big ways and they tell us with little subtle signs. If we are open and willing to think out of the box, we can find health problems. We can also stop behavior changes before they escalate into habit.
It’s also important to call the trainer. In fact a trainer can work with you in tandem with the vet. Rule out any physical problems. It’s likely that your trainer will recommend a vet appointment for any behavioral shifts. You can work on management (especially if your dogs are fighting) while you are finding out if it’s a health issue or not.
BTW, Kaiya had a severe liver enzyme imbalance. Her numbers were off the charts. In western medicine they didn’t really have a name for it, they may have called it “liver disease”. In eastern medicine it’s called “liver fire”. That I understood and the symptoms were self-explanatory. With some treatment, some remedies and of course mega-doses of TLC, she feels much better, her numbers are back to normal and peace resides in my home again.
Check with your vet about what kind of blood testing they do. It may be necessary to have the bloodwork sent out to a more detailed lab, such as this veterinarian’s diagnostic testing service, Hemolife from Hemopet. The same detailed testing can also be done with liver panels.