DEAR DR. FOX: Please help us figure out what is going on with our beloved dog Chief. We are baffled, and so is our vet.
Chief is a 4- or 5-year-old red coonhound mix we adopted from a shelter two years ago. He weighs about 55 pounds. We live on a 5-acre wooded property that is almost entirely enclosed in an invisible fence, and when we got him, Chief would race around the property at warp speed most of the time, to the point of creating his own well-worn paths throughout the area. And, true to his breed, he would go nuts barking at squirrels and raccoons in trees (although deer don't bother him in the least -- he has always just ignored them). Sometimes it was even difficult to get him to abandon making the world safe from squirrels and come into the house.
In February, Chief had a bad urinary tract infection and was on antibiotics and pain medication for several weeks. He has recovered from that, but in some ways he has changed radically: Now he will barely go into the yard and won't go into the wooded area at all, he hardly ever runs anymore and he mostly ignores squirrels. He likes to sit outside in our driveway or on the deck, but he won't venture much farther than that. He is still loving and playful, but he prefers now to be inside most of the time. His personality has not changed, but his behavior is so different that sometimes I wonder if he really is the same dog.
We will be grateful for any light you can shed on his transformation from dog dynamo to a "house cat," as my son now calls him. -- J.B., Fairfax, Virginia
DEAR J.B.: I have heard of dogs developing a phobia of going outdoors where there is an invisible fence set up. They may have received shocks and developed a conditioned emotional reaction. Disconnect it and take Chief on frequent walks in and out of your property. A light dose of alprazolam from the veterinarian may help. Later, reconnect the fence and be with him when he experiences the signal that it is on. I prefer a real fence to keep other dogs (or rabid wildlife) away.
It is also quite possible that his painful urinary tract infection, much like cats with cystitis avoiding the litter box, became associated with being in your outdoor area.
Alternatively, he may have some chronic pain issue and does not want to be very active -- possible vertebral or limb joint problems worth evaluating. Incidences of both acute and chronic pain in animals can set up aversive fear reactions, which persist long after the painful condition has been resolved, fear being part of the enduring conditioned emotional reaction.
DEAR DR. FOX: I have a 1-year-old cat I got from a shelter when he was 6 months old. He is a wonderful companion, sits on my lap and brings me toys when he wants to play.
Every so often, he frantically bites my arms. His teeth are very sharp, and he breaks the skin. He does it only when I am in my recliner or sitting on the edge of my bed, never when I am at my desk or table, even though my arms are accessible. He bites through clothing if I am wearing something with long sleeves.
Do you have any thoughts on why he does this? More importantly, what I can do to stop this behavior? -- J.R., Falls Church, Virginia
DEAR J.R.: Expectant parents usually get books and seek advice about infant care before their child is born, and I wish more people would do the same before they take a companion animal into their lives. Knowing something about their behavior and basic needs and modes of communication are essential for establishing a mutually enhancing relationship. Love without understanding will not get you very far!
Your cat is giving you "love bites," which I discuss in my books "Supercat" and "Cat Body, Cat Mind." A loud "No," followed by a light tap in the cat's nose, just as a mother cat will discipline a kitten, may suffice. Alternatively, pick up the cat and put him on the floor and redirect his behavior to a toy. Before one of our cats gets into this amorous mode (some cats will follow the bites with straddling and humping or regress and try to nurse and knead your arm or leg with their front paws), we either start brushing or massaging the cat. Ideally, consider adopting another cat so they can interact as cats do on their own terms and enrich each other's lives in ways we cannot.
You may also be unwittingly attracting your cat with some body lotion you have applied to yourself that may act like a pheromone and trigger this kind of behavior.
(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.
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