Rocks, Storms, and Home Alone

Seemingly logical assumptions can lead the most cautious among us down the wrong path. Veterinary medicine provides generous opportunities so I gather every detail possible. Because it’s important for me to understand the people who bring their pets to me I ask their ages and occupations. Nearly everybody complies.

Diane and Don Sheets, each retired and in their early 80s, lived in a semi-rural (semi-wild) area near Santa Fe, NM. They had one dog, a spaniel mix named Harvey. The Nichol family’s previous dog was Miss America; our current Border collie is Mick Jagger. The reasons for those names are obvious, to me, anyway. The Sheets’ named their dog Harvey because, to them, he looked like a Harvey.

Harvey could be sanguine when his world was quiet but his errant behaviors wreaked havoc in Diane’s mind. During storm season this poor dog jumped at the walls, barked incessantly, and drooled like a fire hose. If allowed loose in the yard he snuck around like a ninja to find the perfect landscaping rocks to swallow. His veterinary surgeon knew his intestines well, having visited often. While Diane wrung her hands, Don seemed imperturbable. Maybe they had division of labor in their marriage with Diane as designated worrier. Still, I wanna be more like Don.

Harvey was referred to me for treatment of his pica (eating non-food items), his storm phobia, separation anxiety, and his frantic barking and thrashing during car rides. He was a mess. The brain is a complex and mysterious organ. I worry about my patients’ brains; you may be wondering about mine.

I was a general practice veterinarian for many years. I’ve opened lots of abdomens to retrieve loads of foreign junk including meat wrappers, bottle caps, dental floss, toys, and rocks. Then I shook up my career by pursuing, somehow successfully, residency training in veterinary behavior medicine. Referring veterinarians send me tough cases like Harvey. It’s my job to plumb the depths of malfunctioning dog and cat brains.

Rocks in Guts
Harvey, a rather handsome and genuinely sweet spaniel mix, carried a laundry list of behavior symptoms. His pica (eating non-food items) was priority one because it could kill him. Folks are often amused by the bizarre items consumed by other people’s pets but the mirth is singularly lacking when it happens at your house. Intestines naturally push and squeeze ingesta (food) in the inevitable direction of a creature’s rear end. When junk gets stuck along the way, peristaltic movements come to an abrupt stop.

Whenever Harvey’s dietary indiscretion acted up on him his head and tail drooped and he lost interest in food and play. Don and Diane knew right away that he needed to see a doctor. They were right. An object lodged in the intestine, pressing relentlessly against the soft inner wall, stops blood from flowing through the local capillaries. Dying intestinal tissue breaks down quickly and leaks fluid, along with prodigious quantities of bacteria. The result is a raging septic peritonitis – a potential catastrophe. Surgery to remove the offending object and correct the damage is an emergency procedure. Junk eaters like Harvey are not class clowns; their guts are time bombs.

Why did Harvey eat rocks? Some people posit that it’s boredom and that painting Bitter Apple or hot pepper sauce on random rubble might discourage this perilous proclivity. They would be wrong. Research has shown that chronic nausea is most often the culprit.

Dogs are not little people in furry suits. They manage their discomfort differently than we do. Rather than Hoovering yard debris like Harvey does, other queasy dogs may lick surfaces excessively, including floors, walls, their legs or the clothing or skin of their people. To unravel the real reason for Harvey’s aberrant eating habits I referred him to a veterinary internist. An abdominal ultrasound evaluation and endoscopic exam with biopsies found chronic inflammatory bowel disease. His behavior was a symptom of trouble elsewhere in his body – it was not “all his head.”

Storms & Separation: Tough Sledding
Harvey’s stone sampling diminished quickly with medication for his intestinal disorder. His daddy, Don the designated household pooper scooper, seldom found landscaping rocks in his spaniel’s stool anymore. Harvey’s intense fear of storms and intermittent wild jumping at the clothes dryer continued.

There is robust evidence that our brains are often influenced by problems elsewhere in the body. When Harvey’s intestines felt better his barking, pacing, and destruction when home alone improved somewhat but he had additional reasons for his separation anxiety. In most cases, it’s a dog’s genetic programming that sets this disorder into motion. The brain, with its intricate network of neurons and neurotransmitters, is considered the most complex organ in the body. It strains my brain to unravel and improve the misery of some of my patients. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine; a challenged mind performs better longer. So they say.

Poor Harvey lost his mind during Northern New Mexico’s summer thunder storms. Noise phobia, another genetically influenced behavior, is an added bonus in 30% of dogs with separation anxiety. Harvey needed to feel safe, whatever change came crashing down on him. Confining him wasn’t the answer.

To prevent damage to their furniture Diane and Don had already tried crating their dog when they left home. To gather details on this pupster’s coping skills I suggested they purchase a $7-$10 table top tripod (local retailers or for their smart phone. That was an eye opener. Harvey’s agitation was obvious during quiet weather. But when thunder storms rolled in he flung himself around inside his cage.

I recommended leaving the crate open and adding a dog door to make it easy for Harvey to dive into a dark closet during storms. On sunny days he could scavenge from food-dispensing toys buried in his outdoor digging box. These methods work well only when the overwhelming anxiety is controlled. Safe prescription medication is essential to the wellbeing of dogs like Harvey.

Clothes Dryer Aggression? Harvey Knew
Dogs with separation anxiety can freak-out badly if they feel boxed in. With the crate left open and outdoor access through his dog door, Harvey had the choices he’d needed all along. It’s hard to wring your paws and fret while scrounging for survival, so I advised Don to bury food toys in an outdoor digging box before leaving home. Now this hungry spaniel had to work for a living, darn it. No more loafing around and belly aching. Carefully dosed antianxiety medication plus at-home treatments with a pulsed electromagnetic field device (Calmer Canine) reduced Harvey’s anxiety, making it much easier for him to succeed. Still, the poor dog struggled with an unsolved mystery behavior. Wild lunging at a clothes dryer? That was a new one.

Diane and Don lived in a semi-rural outpost North of Santa Fe. Local wildlife? “Oh, yes,” exclaimed Diane. “We see deer and bobcats and coyotes and …” She didn’t mention rodents but there was no need to ask. Clothes dryers vent to the outside of a house. It was late fall. A warm place to nest for the winter – well, who among us doesn’t want that?

Please don’t get me wrong. I am quite fond of all creatures great and small. But deer mice in Northern New Mexico are known to carry hantavirus, a dangerous human pathogen. Mindful of Diane’s propensity for Olympic level hand-wringing I gently suggested that the interior of her dryer may be worth a look. She could call an exterminator.

Diane, Don, and a securely leashed Harvey watched with baited breath as the brave first rodent responder gently removed the rear panel of their clothes dryer. There were nesting mice cowering inside a wad of insulation, 3 of them. These little varmints had reason to hide. Waiting patiently, also inside the dryer, skulked a ravenous 5-foot-long bull snake. Harvey, of course, was thrilled. He knew all along.