DEAR DR. FOX: We adopted a 10-year-old 5-pound Chihuahua named Potato from the animal shelter. He was at the shelter many months because no one could touch him -- he screams and tries to bite when hands come down hear him. Nothing is known about his history.
We've had him for three years, and his aversion to hands has not improved. I've read books and consulted with those in rescue, sanctuaries, reputable breeders and the Chihuahua Club of America. He has been to training and we've tried different herbs and L-theanine. He has been worked up medically more than once (blood work, exam, X-rays, urine analysis). He drinks a ton of water and pees accordingly, but his urine is always normal even though his drinking seems compulsive.
He is a normal dog who enjoys treats, walking and playing; he gets along well with other dogs (in our household and outside). He is excited to see us and will lick my face. He likes to sit on our laps and lean into us as a way to touch. He seems to like people -- just not their hands. He looks like a normal dog until he sees a hand reaching for him, then he displays the body language of a fearful dog. The best way to describe him at these times is "spring-loaded."
Everyday things like leashing and putting on a harness or coat are very difficult. His reaction -- screaming and trying to bite -- is reflexive. I think the anticipation of being touched may be worse for him than the actual touching. Not even general anesthetic and Valium takes the edge off. Once, while waking up from having his teeth cleaned, he screamed while I tried to get his harness on. Once home, he didn't appear groggy at all. He is always on high alert.
It isn't easy, but we've found ways to work with him. Sadly, he seems to want affection but can't tolerate it. He seems to do better if petted with a blanket over him so hands touch the blanket and not his body, but he might panic at any time. One other observation: His tail is always slightly to the left: It's tucked left and it wags left.
Any ideas on how we might help him deal with everyday things that involve hands? -- L.W., Arlington, Virginia
DEAR L.W.: I applaud your patience and endurance with this touch-phobic little dog. He may be suffering from a complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or a condition seen in Cocker spaniels that is a form of hysteria associated with extremely low levels of serotonin in the brain.
A low dose of Prozac may help. You can also try giving a supplement such as 5-hydroxytryptophan to help elevate brain serotonin. Also, 1 or 2 milligrams of melatonin every morning and evening may prove beneficial. Discuss these treatments with your veterinarian. They should be easy to give embedded in a little cream cheese or peanut butter.
A blanket or towel over a dog can be very calming, and I am glad that your dog has helped you discover this. When he is covered, simply touching him with your hands may help him relax -- this is the healing power of touch, documented in my two books, "The Healing Touch for Dogs" and "The Healing Touch for Cats."
DEAR DR. FOX: I have a female dog who is the same size as my cat (17 pounds). For five years, I have been trying to keep my dog out of the cat's litter box. She not only goes for the poop, but eats the litter, too.
I have tried everything -- scolding, water pistol and loud noises. The cat is old, so I can't put the litter up high. Please help. -- S.R., Hendersonville, North Carolina
DEAR S.R.: One effective solution is to get an adjustable baby gate and secure it so there is enough space between the gate and the floor for the cat to squeeze under. Dogs have a harder time compressing their bodies.
Alternatively, if your cat is agile enough, help her learn to climb over the gate, a feat quite easy for healthy cats, but difficult for most dogs. You could also try putting the litter box in your bathroom and showing your cat where it is. This may be a good barrier for your dog.
Feeding your dog a digestive enzyme, perhaps a few pieces of canned pineapple, and 2 tablespoons of plain yogurt may be another solution if the litter box issue has a nutritional or digestive disturbance origin.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.com.)