My husband and I have a 6 year old chihuahua. We have had him for over 5 years. About a year and a half ago we noticed that he was yelping when we would try to put on his harness to take him outside or sometimes if we pet him etc. it got progressively worse. We took him to the vet and did blood work, x-rays etc and discovered he had a slipped disk. We proceeded with strict crate rest for a few months combined with acupuncture and medication (rimadyl). With this regimen he started to show signs of improvement over the months. We waited almost a year before starting to take him on proper walks again (poor guy)!
The thing is, he hasn't been the same since. He has become a lot more anxious (understandably). He has always been submissive and timid but he never used to yelp or shriek. He used to like people and now he is afraid. We have had follow up x-rays and exams and the vet says he is doing much, much better. However, when he is at home with us he exhibits strange behavior that the vet says he does not see.
Some days he will act completely normal and other days he will act very bizarre. On a "bizarre" day I might walk by him (not even touch him) and he yelps as if in pain. If I try to put on his harness he yelps as if in pain. If I go to pet him he yelps as if in pain. Oftentimes if strangers go to pet him he will shriek. He used to love human attention. Also on some days he will skip a meal. I will put it out and he will leave it (which is strange he loves to eat). I put it away until next meal and then maybe he will eat. Then the next day appetite is back.
I will use today as an example. The morning started out fine. I took him outside, he ate etc. Came in mid morning and played with him and all was good. Then later in the afternoon I went to put the harness on him, told him to sit and he did not. Repeated it. He finally did. Then I tried to put the harness on him and he started shrieking uncontrollably. Frazzled I stopped. I sat on the floor and just sat still trying to calm him and myself down. He eventually came near me (not right up to me) and again the same reaction. I decided to walk away and do something else for a while. Later on tried to give him a treat and a pet, same reaction (yelping). He was keeping a distance from me.
30 minutes later I am very anxious myself. I'm trying to calm down because I know he can read my energy. I sit on the floor again and wait. He comes near me. I try again and same response. His harness is half on and I just let him run away. Eventually I end up giving him a rimadyl that I had extra of incase he is feeling pain for some reason (right or wrong I was desperate enough to try anything). I wait. Try again. Same response. I manage to get it on and we go for a walk. Everything is normal. He is acting happy. I take him for a long walk to help him burn nervous energy. When we get to the door I'm holding my breath to take off the harness and he doesn't yelp. Everything is normal. Relief on my part...I am exhausted from this. A few hours later he eats dinner. He is approaching me like normal I try to play he is not much interested. He comes up to me for a pet and then shrieks 10 seconds into it.
I don't know what it is that sets him off. He was boarding at the vet just the other week. Every time he is there I specifically ask them to monitor for signs of anxiety etc. and when we pick him up they say he was fine. The past few months he has not been getting as much exercise because of busy schedule and I am sure that could be playing into the anxiety. However I don't know how to help him get exercise etc if I can't get his harness on without a big anxious reaction. I am wondering about a thunder coat?
Obviously if the vet is not observing the behavior it must be something my husband and I are doing? Or something in our environment? I really don't know but I feel really bad for him and us because I feel like I'm walking on eggshells. Help!
Thank you for your question. That's a tough situation to be in, and it can be heartbreaking and frustrating when there is clearly something wrong but the dog obviously can't tell you what it is.
I agree that there may be some anxiety and a need to be cautious/protective on the dog's part given his previous injury. But, I believe that there is probably pain involved too. Now, to be clear and ethical, I need to point out I am NOT a vet. I have no veterinary or medical training. I cannot diagnose nor prescribe treatment for any physical ailment
. However, the behaviors you're describing sound more like intermittent pain than they do anxiety.
If we were having a proper conversation/consultaiton, I'd start with these quetions:
1. Which disk/s was slipped? Cervical (neck), thorasic (mid back along the ribs), lumbar (low back)?
2. What kind of harness does he use and does any part of the harness go across or rest on the slipped disk?
3. What else was going on in his immediate world when he displays what you describe as "bizarre" behavior? Specifically is there a change in weather such as colder or wetter? A drop in barometric pressure?
3a. Also, is there any stressful situtations in the home such as humans arguing, humans feeling unwell, human anxiety/stress/depression that is flaring simultaneous or just prior to the dog's behavior display? This could also include changes to the schedule such as someone working a night shift or longer hours, etc.
4. When you pet him and he starts to scream, does this happen only when you touch a particular area of his body (head, neck, shoulder, spine, hip, side, feet, etc), even if not every time you touch that part, or does it happen to many parts - and if so which parts of his body have you been touching/petting when he begins to scream?
5. How is his mobility when he's in the middle of one of these episodes - is he moving slower, stiffer, in a more stilted way? Does he round his back and walk on his toes or cower toward the ground? Can he lie down/stand up easily or does he seem to have to put more effort into it? Can he run at normal speed moving all his legs at full stride during these episodes?
5a. How is his mobility outside of these episodes - stride, ease of lying/standing up, body posture relaxed or guarded/stiff?
Screaming at being touched, or at the potential for being touched, loss of appetite and the relaxing and willingness to be handled/touched an hour after taking the pain medication all support the notion that this is a pain response. When my chihuahua mix had an injury he screamed when touched as well. He also screamed sometimes just from pain induced by shifting position when I was across the room from him. But at the vet's office he was silent. The fear of the environment and the sense of vulnerability can supersede the presentation of pain causing the dog to just be silent or partially shut down.
That the vet isn't seeing it only tells us that your dog "isn't talking" when he's at the vet. That the issue seems intermittent at home suggests that it's intermittent pain. Bulging or slipped disks put pressure on nereves in that area. Such pressure on the nerves can cause local pain as well as referred pain along the entire length of the involved nerve (example: the Sciatic nerve root comes out of L5/Si [space between the 5th Lumbar and 1st Sacral vertebra], and the nerve runs down the length of the leg. When a person has a bulging disk that puts pressure on that nerve root, they may feel pain right there at the lumbar spine. But they may [often] also feel pain radiate down the back of their thigh and wrap around to the front of the knee and down to the ankle. This pain can be constant or intermittent. It can be a dull ache or a searing hot pain or anywhere in between and it can alternate between the two.)
If one of my dogs had the history of a known bulging disk and the vet declared it recovered or mostly recovered, but I was seeing such intermittent behavior displays that suggest pain, I would seek out a second opinion. I would track the bizarre behavior and note the time of day, the activity, the weather and anything else that was happening in the half hour or so leading up to the behavior, as well as for when the behavior subsides (especially noting if I gave pain meds and how long after that did the dog's behavior relax and calm). I would then bring this history to the vet so that we could try to develop a better picture of what might be happening.
If it really is anxiety, then a Thunder Shirt may help or it may not. Some dogs show a marked decrease in anxiety. But if his anxiety is about being handled and having something put on, then it will only serve to increase his anxiety because it's something that has to be put on and requires handling him.
There are definitely behavioral things we can do to help him feel safer again such as counter conditioning - pairing your proximity/reaching for him/touching him/ handling him with the harness with something he loves such as his favorite dog-safe human food. There's a video demonstrating how to acclimate a dog to a muzzle that could be very helpful in this situation. You'd be doing the exercise with the harness** instead of a muzzle, but the concept and process is otherwise identical.
**If the harness he currently wears has any contact to the area where the bulging disk was/is, then the first thing you'll want to do is get a different style of harness that will not put any pressure on that disk or the immediately surrounding area.
But given the intermittent nature of his behavior and the severity of it and that it settled with the pain med, my first thought and first aim for investigation is that there is still a pain factor that needs to be addressed. A second opinion with a different vet - perhaps one who specializes in orthopedic issues - would be my priority in tending to my dog's issue.
Good luck. Please feel free to followup with answers to the questions I posed and I may be able to revise my response or if I can be of any other assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist