When a dog’s behaviour suddenly changes, a good dog trainer does not turn to training techniques and behaviour modification. They turn to their veterinarian. Chances are there is a very real health problem that should be dealt with first.
At our last agility trial of 2011, Tiramisu had broken down completely. The loud slamming of a door in the barn had paralysed her with fear to the point that even returning to the same barn the next day left her unwilling to attempt running an agility course. This was the culmination of a 5 month series of events that showed us a radical shift in her behaviour and emotional state in running agility. We knew something was very wrong and made our appointment to see the veterinarian to get her checked out.
We had suspected a health issue since the summer and had been to the vet to have blood drawn for testing in July and September with no results reporting anything out of the ordinary. On this latest visit, our vet examined Tira and could find nothing out of the ordinary – again. As we were discussing her health, loud boom sounded from the ceiling above and Tira visibly cringed. The vet commented that it was a strange reaction but did not pursue it.
We left that vet visit as puzzled as ever. If it were not for the experiences of a dear friend, that might have been where our investigation stopped. Fortunately, we had the benefit of her experience and insight in our corner.
A Hidden Factor
Our friend Tanya Vivian is a very talented and dedicated positive trainer and dog lover. She also has Belgian Shepherds, the same breed of dog as Tiramisu. About 5 years ago, Tanya’s older dog began having significant seizures lasting from 20 to 30 minutes where his body goes rigid from extreme muscle contraction. In working with her veterinarian to diagnose the cause of these seizures, it was suggested that Tanya have the dog’s thyroid levels checked. It turned out that her dog showed low levels of thyroid and was put on medication.
While Tiramisu has never had anything like the seizures that Tanya’s dog exhibited, I recalled Tanya describing unexpected and sometimes extreme fear reactions in her dog prior to the onset of the seizures. Before the diagnosis of low thryoid, Tanya assumed she had a quirky dog and was at a loss to explain the strange fear and avoidance behaviours she was seeing. More importantly, I recalled Tanya’s relief when she reported that most of her dog’s fearful reactions subsided once her dog was getting a regular dosage of thyroid medication. It could very well be that Tiramisu had a similar issue with her thyroid. It was worth checking out.
We took Tiramisu to see the vet in early November to have blood drawn for a thyroid test. We fully expected, based on the experiences of our friend Tanya, that the results would definitively show what was going on with our dog. To our surprise, when the results came in, they reported that Tira’s thyroid levels were at the low end of normal and our vet assured us that this was nothing to worry about. We were also told that Tira was not presenting the typical known symptoms of a low thyroid condition such as hair loss, overweight gain, lethargy, and dull coat. We were not willing to let this go yet.
Tanya’s description of her dogs extreme fearful reactions so resembled the changes that we had observed in Tiramisu over the previous 5 months that we felt that it was worth doing some further testing. In diagnosing her own dog, Tanya discovered Dr. Jean Dodds who provides a more rigorous set of tests than the standard testing done for thyroid levels. When we asked our vet about having blood sent to Dr. Dodds for testing, we were told that it would cost $150 and that it would probably not reveal anything new. We went ahead with the additional testing.
A Brave New World
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the curtain was about to be drawn back on an entirely new world of canine health that we had never had to deal with. To our vet’s surprise, Tira’s results from Dr. Dodds’ testing showed that she was definitely low thyroid and an initial dosage was prescribed. Crossing our fingers, we began administering her 2 daily pills with high hopes but no idea what to expect.
At the time, Tira was also dealing with an eye infection and had been in to the vet for that when we were given her thyroid results from Dr. Dodds and her new meds. When we returned just 2 days later for a re-check on the eye, our vet expressed her amazement at the incredible improvement in Tira’s temperament after only 2 days on the thyroid medication. Tira’s demeanor, her level of contentment, her tolerance for being touched, and even her ability to cope with different situations had vastly improved after only 2 days.
In the weeks that followed, Tira continued to improve as her thyroid levels gradually returned to balance. We began reading on the Internet about thyroid issues. To our surprise, we found many sites that described thyroid symptoms and many did not describe behaviour changes or fearfulness as a symptom. The article we found at PetMD makes no mention of either in it’s list of symptoms.
Finding The Disconnect
Clearly we saw a significant change in Tira’s behaviour within a few days of starting her thyroid meds. Even though various sources, including our own vet, were telling us that Tira was not showing the usual symptoms of low thyroid, she was improving almost daily. We decided to purchase Dr. Jean Dodds’ book The Canine Thyroid Epidemic to learn more about thyroid disorders for ourselves. An article by Dr. Dodds entitled Behavioural Issues with Thyroiditis contains this passage:
“In adult dogs, moodiness, erratic temperament, periods of hyperactivity, lack of concentration, depression, mental dullness, lethargy, malaise, fearfulness and phobias, anxiety, submissiveness, passivity, compulsiveness, and irritability may be observed. After the episodes, most of the animals behave as though they were coming out of a trance like state, and are unaware of their previous behavior.” [Eric: Emphasis is mine]
According to Dr. Dodds writing, the classic symptoms described in the PetMD article I cited above (e.g., lethargy, hair loss, dull coat, overweight, etc.) will not make themselves apparent unless 70% or more of the thyroid tissue has been destroyed or damaged. To complicate matters further, many of the early signs of thyroid problems can mimic other medical or behavioural problems.
There are two factors that make early thyroid diagnosis difficult for veterinarians. First, the study of thyroid disorders in dogs is relatively new. According to Dr. Dodds, research did not start in earnest until around 1980 whereas human thyroid issues have been studied since the beginning of the 1900′s. Second, most standardized tests recommended by veterinary colleges are not testing the the T3 thyroid hormone but only the T4. It can be important to know levels of both T3 and T4 before making an accurate diagnosis.
If the puzzle stopped at Thyroid hormones, that would have been enough to take in but there was more. You see, thyroid issues can create difficulties in clearing other hormones in the body. One of those is Cortisol, also called the “stress hormone”, which is part of the adrenal system. Dogs with thyroid problems can have chronically high Cortisol levels. High Cortisol levels inhibit the use of the hormone Serotonin which helps the dog cope with stress and aggressive impulses. Like clinical depression in humans, the imbalance in these hormonal systems can make it literally impossible for the dog to experience relief from fear or stress at a bio-chemical level.
In other words, until we got her body chemistry back on track, any behavioural approach we might have taken to deal with Tira’s fears would have been an uphill struggle that was likely doomed to fail. In our case, if it were not for the experiences of our friend Tanya, Tira could have gone down as just another mis-diagnosed “basket case” from a canine performance sport. As it is, her recovery to this point has been nothing short of astounding.
The Start of a Longer Journey
As much as we would like to have the medications return Tiramisu back to her former self, that’s just not the way it works. But there is reason to be very hopeful. We have seen incredible changes in Tira’s behaviour since the first week she started her thyroid medication. She would always alert anxiously to a dropped item or loud noise but now her recovery time is measured in seconds instead of minutes. She was uncomfortable with other dogs coming close to her and now her tolerance for other dogs, especially our younger dog Rizzo is remarkably calm and accepting. And there are many other small things like the more relaxed way she carries herself and the softer look in her eyes.
But this is by no means the end of our story. There will need to be more blood tests through her life to adjust the dosage of the thyroid replacement to the correct levels. More importantly, there is a significant behavioural component to all of this that I haven’t talked about yet.
During that 5 month period where we are fairly certain Tira experienced low thyroid, she was experiencing very real fear. Dogs do not dwell on the past but they do remember traumatic emotional experiences and sometimes they never get over them. I’ve talked in this column about different approaches to overcome a dog’s adverse reactions or fears such as Counter Conditioning and Desensitization. We’re certainly working on applying those techniques and others to maximize Tira’s recovery, sometimes in novel and interesting ways.
Sadly, we can’t know for certain when Tiramisu’s thyroid issues began. Dr. Dodds maintains that as many as 80% of all hypothyroid cases are an inherited genetic autoimmune condition. So it’s possible that Tira has had low thyroid for much of her life. some statiistics have reported that as many as 12% of all dogs may have some degree of thyroid problem. Our experience shows that dog owners should be diligent about their dog’s health and to work pro-actively with their veterinarian. Use the Internet and the dog community to gather as much information as you can to share with your dog’s health care professionals.
My thanks go out to Tanya Vivian, our friends in the dog community, our veterinarians , to Dr. Jean Dodds and her group at Hemopet, to trainer and behaviourist Kathy Sdao, and our Internet “family” who have shown us much love and support.
In the next chapter of this story I’ll talk about how we have approached rehabilitating Tiramisu and report on the progress we’ve made.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Important! If you think your dog may have thyroid issues, please ask your veterinarian to have a blood test done. It is inexpensive and can improve your dog’s quality of life dramatically.
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All photos copyright Petra Wingate 2008-2012