Animal Farm Foundation’s most recent blog post is entitled “For the Dogs It’s All Pain, No Gain”.
They examine the damage that is unintentionally perpetuated by pit bull advocates who spread the myth that pit bulls have a higher tolerance for pain than other breeds. The article’s main point is that ALL animals experience pain and that responses are not breed specific. Assessing the amount of pain an animal is experiencing is extremely subjective, as it manifests differently from individual to individual. Pit bulls neurological systems are no different than that of other dogs and as a result, should be assessed no differently or using higher criterion.
I was halfway through writing a blog post to piggyback on the article, when my trainer posted a response to the identical article in the link that my co-organizers posted on our Facebook page, stressing the importance of considering pain and the impact it has on behavior.
Her response served as a confirmation that the topic of pain is worth addressing. I feel that I need to share Lola’s story to emphasize the importance of noticing your dog’s behavioral changes. When Lola first started to grow increasingly anxious and reactive around the age of 8 months, we attributed it to her deafness. We had been to the vet repeatedly, convinced at times that her behavior must be resulting from a medical problem. We knew that she had patellar luxation, but it didn’t seem to be causing her continuous pain (which the orthopedic surgeon confirmed). After several months, we were still struggling to get her behavior under control, despite constant training and management.
Losing hope, I decided that she and I needed to do a confidence boosting activity together as an attempt to ease her anxiety. That led me in a full circle back to Roseann, the trainer to whom we had initially reached out to help us train Lola in sign when we first adopted her. After only three private agility lessons in Roseann’s backyard (where she was able to eventually meet a relaxed Lola), Roseann strongly urged me to dig deeper with our veterinarian about possible underlying medical problems, despite the clean bill of health we had been given previously. Our vet, who is wonderful about truly regarding owners’ opinions, did an additional full panel of bloodwork, an expansive fecal test, and a comprehensive physical exam- all yielding results indicating no obvious problems.
Since we adopted her, amongst various other ‘odd’ behaviors, Lola would vomit periodically for no obvious reason. Sometimes she’d vomit food, and other times she’d spit up bile. We just assumed that this was a normal occurrence for dogs, perhaps from eating too much grass or too many plants outside. Then one day, Lola vomited several times and seemed extremely lethargic. Our vet told us to try giving her Pepcid AC to soothe her stomach before bringing her in for an exam. To our surprise, she perked up within twenty minutes. To be sure that her stomach felt better, we continued to give her Pepcid AC twice a day for two days. Over those two days we saw dramatic improvements- she was happier, more energetic, and EATING! Getting Lola to eat was always a struggle. She’d go two days without eating a meal, but we’d find her chomping away on grass. After two days of Pepcid AC, she was not only asking to eat, but hadn’t vomited once. Even more surprising was how much easier training had started to become. We realized that perhaps we had underestimated the significance of what we had once assumed were benign behaviors (like vomiting periodically).
We decided that we needed to follow Roseann’s suggestion and make the trip to UPenn Veterinary Hospital. Because UPenn is a teaching university, the hospital’s emphasis is not on generating money from patients, but teaching veterinarian students through hands on experiences with patients. But to do so, I had to make our initial consult appointment. Here I faced the age old dilemma- what comes first? The chicken or the egg?
Was the anxiety and reactivity a manifestation of pain in Lola’s stomach or leg? Or was Lola’s behavior actually causing her stomach pain and/or digestive problems? Or was pain in one area exasperating existing pain in another area and creating these behavior issues?
I had no idea what department to call for an initial consult. But with the help of Lola’s angel, Alison Seward, the Behavior Department’s Veterinary Technician, we managed to arrange an interdepartmental consult between the Behavior Department, Internal Medicine, and Orthopedic Surgery.
That consult, over a year and a half ago, was a life altering day and one that I will never forget. It became excruciatingly obvious to me and my husband that we had missed all indications of Lola’s pain throughout most of her young life. What we learned that day is SO important that I now have a hard time believing that I was so ever so oblivious about so many issues. First, a dog’s stool should be firm- all of the time. Soft or liquid stool indicates a digestive issue. Vomiting? Not normal. Not even periodically. And how about when a dog picks at her food? Again- not normal. Most dogs will not stop eating on their own and need their owners to control portions. In the wild, dogs are indiscriminate eaters. However, the one time they will not eat food is when it makes them sick. Therefore, refusal to eat is a sign that the food you’re feeding your dog is somehow negatively affecting her.
Because Lola was presenting symptoms similar to that of “leaky gut Syndrome”, she was put her on a prescription diet containing a hydrolyzed protein. This means that the protein in the food is broken down so small that when it “leaks” out of the stomach, the body doesn’t recognize it as an allergen. Within two days of starting her new diet, we saw unimaginable changes with Lola. She ate, and willingly at that, her itchy eyes diminished, she was more attentive to our training efforts, and she was obviously less reactive.
Over time, we saw other improvements. Vomiting ceased. She gained weight. She was no longer plagued with reoccurring ear infections, yeast infections, or Vaginitis. And her stool was harder (and healthier) than ever, alleviating the need to have her anal glands expressed so frequently.
As relieved as I was that we had found our answer, I was saddened with the realization that I had allowed her to live the first year and a half of her life in constant pain. I felt as though I had failed her by not recognizing the signs. I now know that pain can manifest itself in any variety of ways:
- dilated pupils
- behavioral changes
- teeth chattering
- disinterest in physical activity
- inability to focus or concentrate
These are just a few signs of pain, each independent of each other and often representative of a variety other various conditions. This is why it is so difficult for owners to connect these symptoms in isolation to pain.
I learned another lesson that day. My dog, my pit bull mix who seemed to have such a ‘high pain tolerance’, really is just keenly adept at masking tremendous pain. She, unlike other dogs, does not whine when in pain, or curb her activities. I believe that her deafness has caused her to hone her survival skills and when she’s sympathetically aroused (which is quite often), her nervous system shifts into overtime to hide pain which to dogs may be perceived as weakness.
What I’ve come to realize instead is that Lola is super sensitive and displays pain in ways that are unrecognizable to the untrained human eye. When she doesn’t eat, I know something has upset her stomach slightly, even by something as innocuous as a half dose of unflavored Rimadyl. When she isn’t quite as active as normal or laying a certain way, I know that her leg is hurting her. When her pupils are dilated and she’s ‘wild’, I know that she’s reacting to digestive related sensitivities or is gassy. I have learned to be a master at reading my dog’s behavior because I’m determined to ensure that Lola lives a pain-free, high quality life.
I truly believe that the doctors at UPenn saved Lola’s life that day. I don’t know if we would have been able to get a handle on her behavioral problems had we not addressed the underlying medical issues first. I urge owners not to underestimate the effects of pain on their dogs. Dogs are like humans. Think about how often you take Tylenol or Advil for a headache. Imagine now, how you’d react to someone trying to engage you in conversation, play, or training without pain relief. Not too well I imagine.