Hero is a young female Labrador who came to Adelaide Vet for a second opinion after being referred by a dog trainer who noticed that Hero was not behaving normally and needed extra help. Hero and her owner were really struggling as Hero was displaying some very undesirable behaviours which were making life very hard.
Hero’s list of presenting problems included:
- being generally anxious and agitated, hyper-aroused, hyper-vigilant all the time, easily over-stimulated and hyper-excitable
- difficulty self-soothing, resting, settling
- difficulty recovering when something upset or stimulated her
- sleep disturbances – unable to sleep through the night, becoming distressed and barking
- distress when visitors come to the home
- excessive panting (panting almost all of the time)
- mouthing people
- jumping up at people
- grabbing at her owner’s clothing
- excessive barking
- excessive chewing and destruction
- clingy / needy behaviour
- difficulty going for walks – would freeze, lie down and refuse to walk when out and about
- learning difficulties – could not respond normally to training due to her high levels and anxiety and distress
- fearful of many stimuli (such as lawnmowers, vacuum cleaner)
Poor Hero had a very shaky start to life. Her mother had died of an infection when she was just 2 weeks old and so she was weaned early and abruptly which can be very detrimental to brain development. Hero was hand-reared with the other pups in the litter and not all of them survived.
Early in her life she suffered some medical issues including diarrhoea, ear infections and an allergic reaction to a bee sting, suggesting her immune system had suffered some disturbances.
Hero’s owner noticed from the first day she got her that she did not seem quite right in terms of her behaviour. She was extremely “wired” and “highly strung” and had problems functioning like a normal dog.
In her behaviour consultation it was clear that Hero was not normal. She was extremely stressed and did not interact normally. Her muscles were tense and tight and she did lots of stress behaviours such as yawning, licking her lips, panting and pacing. At times she lay on the floor and appeared clearly exhausted but could not “switch off” or relax. She was hyper-ventilating profusely and constantly hyper-vigilant.
We conducted some screening blood tests on Hero to rule out any contributing medical causes for her behaviour. These tests were all normal. This confirmed suspicions that poor Hero was suffering a mental health problem.
She was diagnosed with a severe generalised anxiety and hyper-arousal disorder.
Anxiety disorders in dogs are unfortunately very common. They are characterised by abnormalities of neurochemistry and firing of certain circuitry in the brain and central nervous system. They are caused by the complicated overlapping influences of genetics, experience / learning and environment. Therefore, they need to be treated via a multi-angled approach involving the use of medication, nutrition, behaviour modification and management.
Once a diagnosis was made and it was clear what was underlying Hero’s distressing behaviour, treatment was able to be commenced.
Hero started on some medication to address the harmful abnormal firing of the stress and anxiety pathways in her brain and body which were affecting her quality of life and ability to function.
Thankfully, she responded wonderfully to her medication and very quickly made huge improvements.
At her follow up visit she was dramatically better. Her owner described her as like “a new dog”, in a good way! She was able to achieve normal levels of calm and relaxation, think clearly and respond appropriately to her environment. All of her signs and symptoms such as hyper-activity, excessive panting and problems concentrating and sleeping were markedly improved.
It was clear that Hero’s and her owner’s quality of life was far better which was a big relief.
Hero was then able to participate better in her learning and behaviour modification. She was able to progress with relaxation and impulse control exercises. Her owner did a fabulous job of setting Hero up for success, providing for her needs and teaching her how to feel better and behave better.
It has at times been a rocky road for Hero on her journey to optimal mental health and she will need life-long support for her illness and special needs, but she has shown wonderful resilience and come such a long way.