Our dogs are always doing crazy things that make us laugh, but could those entertaining antics be a sign of deeper problems? Tim Falk reports on these odd dog behaviours.
Six-year-old Labrador Barney was always full of beans, known to leap high into the air whenever he was feeling excited. “He was always prone to jumping really high — several feet, in fact — and we used to laugh and think he was a doggy Olympian,” says Barney’s owner, Adrienne Kotz.
Sadly, however, Barney’s fondness for jumping for joy was to bring him undone. Barney’s jumping caused him to suffer from volvulus, where the stomach twists on its long axis — in Barney’s case some 720 degrees. “He survived the major surgery, but we were warned of the complications to his heart and lungs and in the end he arrested and we lost him,” Kotz says.
The tragic tale of Barney’s passing is not an isolated one. The quirky and unusual behaviours our dogs display can be adorably cute and often very funny, but sometimes those entertaining antics can be the cause or a symptom of deeper problems.
And some of those behaviours are more common than you may think, such as dogs scooting their bum along the floor. “Dogs that do that familiar scooting move across the carpet usually have anal irritation from one of several common causes,” says Dr David Simpson, a specialist small animal surgeon and director of the Animal Referral Hospital.
“The anal sacs that are located in the muscular anal sphincter at the four- and eight o’clock positions normally contain a fishy-smelling secretion from surrounding glandular tissue. The contents of each anal sac partially discharge onto the stool during defecation through a single narrow duct that can get blocked, causing the sacs to get over-distended. Blockage, infection and inflammation of the duct and anal sac can cause irritation and distension of the sac that the dog attempts to relieve by scooting,” he says.
Other common causes of scooting are worms and dermatitis of the anal and perineal skin.
Not as cute as it looks
Given the sad example of Barney above, is jumping a behaviour you should stop your dog doing? While jumping can be embarrassing, and in the case of older people or children can actually pose a real risk of injury should they knock the person over, it is unlikely to pose a health risk or any real risk of injury to the dog itself.
“Having said that, as veterinarians we often treat animals with ‘play-related’ injuries, so I have no doubt there are dogs out there that have injured themselves jumping,” says Dr Nick Wonders from online vet information site www.vetico.com.au. “The risks that come to mind would be an increased likelihood of sustaining musculo-skeletal injuries, such as cruciate ligament rupture, muscle strains and even fractures, particularly if they land on uneven ground or their footing is unsecure to begin with.”
Another common doggy activity that can have negative consequences is fetching and chewing sticks. Sticks can be a great source of entertainment and potentially aid in cleaning dogs’ teeth, but they can also cause health problems. “It’s not uncommon for veterinarians to treat dogs that have sustained injuries whilst playing with sticks,” Dr Wonders says. “More often than not, we see ‘less serious’ injuries such as broken teeth and damaged gums. However, some injuries can be much more serious.”
For example, if the stick lands in the grass end first, then it may pose a high risk of causing a stab or puncture-related injury to your dog. “Common wounds seen as a result of this include puncture wounds at the back and side of the mouth, often dangerously close to vital arteries, veins, airways and nerves,” Dr Wonders says.
Where possible, he recommends replacing a stick with another toy such as a rubber bone or tennis ball.
Some common dog behaviours, meanwhile, can be the sign of some sort of deeper problem. Every dog seems to love rolling around on the grass, often as a form of play or as a response to scents, but sometimes as a way to scratch an itch.
“Just like humans, there are a bunch of different reasons why dogs develop itches,” Dr Wonders says. While every dog has the occasional scratch, excessive scratching may indicate an external parasite infestation, most commonly fleas but occasionally mites, or a skin allergy, the most common of which is atopic dermatitis. Skin allergies and irritations often result from exposure to allergens such as dust mites, pollens, certain food proteins, parasites, mould and grasses.
If your dog is scratching because he is itchy, he will likely traumatise the skin and you should be able to see some evidence of his itchiness. “It’s always best in these circumstances to have your vet examine your pet for any signs of skin disease or external parasitic infections which may account for the behavioural trait you have noticed,” Dr Wonders says.
There are also some other behaviours to keep an eye out for to make sure your dog doesn’t have any underlying health or behavioural issues. “There are many situations when a dog shows displacement gestures (signals to indicate they are uncomfortable in a given situation) and owners encourage the stimulus or keep provoking the dog when displaying these signals,” says Christine Tayler from Panting Paws Behavioural Training.
As a specialist surgeon with a particular interest in neurosurgery, Dr Simpson sees a lot of dogs that have diseases affecting their brain. Many have been showing signs that the owners considered to be just interesting or unusual behaviours. “Grand mal seizures are usually so dramatic that they cannot be ignored by an owner. However, some limited forms of seizure activity from brain disease can cause signs like repetitive jaw champing, scratching, paddling or vocalisation that might be mistaken for an ‘interesting quirk’ by an owner,” he says.
Other signs, such as walking continuously in circles when in an open space or staring at a wall for no apparent reason, can be symptoms of brain disease. A vet visit and perhaps some specialist examination can often explain the cause of the problem and yield treatments that are appropriate.
The best advice for any dog owner is to seek advice from a vet or animal behaviourist if you feel your dog’s funny antics could be troublesome. It’s also important to remember that despite the fact that some activities and behaviours can be a sign or cause of deeper problems, you shouldn’t try to wrap your dog up in cotton wool. Plenty of funny and quirky behaviours are just as innocent as they seem, merely a result of dogs being dogs and showing off their wonderful personalities. And after all, isn’t that what we love about them?
Don’t eat that!
When dogs ingest other dogs’ or animals’ faeces, this is called coprophagia. While this is offensive to humans, it can be quite normal for dogs, commonly younger dogs,” says Christine Tayler.
Coprophagia occurs for a range of reasons, from exploratory or attention-seeking behaviour to dietary preferences or behavioural issues.
Unsurprisingly, eating faeces can cause health problems. “Dogs are able to contract zoonotic diseases such as intestinal worms, parasites and other deadly diseases such as parvovirus,” Tayler says.
If you want to train your dog to stop jumping on people, use a training program which provides regular and consistent training methods. “When the dog is calm and relaxed, practice sitting — in short sessions no longer than five minutes — for a food reward in different areas of the house,” Tayler says.
The word “stay” is added when the duration of sitting is a few seconds. Take a step away from the dog, return immediately and reward. Gradually build the time away from the dog to one or two minutes. “Repeat the exercises near the door also when leaving or returning,” Tayler explains.You need to look after your pooch's health - check out our all-new DOGSLife Directory