Monday, March 14, 2011
When Behavior Problems Aren't So Simple: Raja's Story
Five years ago, Raja was found as a stray, a beautiful giant running through West Philadelphia. At 16" tall and 90 lbs he was a stocky little monster. Raja was lucky enough to avoid cars, other dogs, people who wanted to hurt him, and all the other perils of the city streets, AND was lucky enough to be found by good Samaritans who pulled him off the streets and, not knowing what else to do, dropped him off at a local veterinary emergency room. As "those vet students who run a rescue", we were the first to be called. He didn't have a microchip, ID tag or any means to find his owner. We called the local SPCAs and shelters, and we posted fliers, but no one was looking for poor Raj.
This sweet dog, who never met a person or animal he didn't like, wasn't in foster care long until a young couple applied and were approved to adopt him. He settled in quickly and was happy addition to their family. He had a great 5 years there (making him about 7 now), before we received a disturbing email. Raja had started urinating in their house shortly after they adopted a kitten (a few months ago). They were at their wits end; they had tried babygating him away from the kitten, crating him, taking him outside more frequently, in short, everything they could think of, and yet poor Raja kept peeing in their house, ruining their carpets and floors. The sad, frustrated email stated that they just didn't know what else to do and wanted to return him to us so that we could find him a home where he would be happier.
To our surprise, when we arrived to retrieve Raja, he seemed much the same as when we left him: happy, wagging and giving kisses. They reported that he and the kitten seemed friendly, there was no fighting, chasing or other issues between them, just the urination, every day, in the house. Since they were sure that Raja's new behavior wasn't medical (he seemed normal to them in every other way, and they were sure he was just upset about the kitten), he had not seen a veterinarian since the problem started. To make sure we had a complete history, we started asking the medical questions that they might not have thought of. It turns out that Raja had lost some weight recently and also seemed to be hungry all the time, both of which they didn't think much about until we started asking (they had put him on a diet and attributed the weight loss and hunger to this).
In order to think about placing a dog as old as Raja in another home, we needed to do a complete medical work-up for him first. Since old dogs take a long time to place, we didn't feel like it would be fair to ask him to adjust to a new foster home and then a new adoptive home if there was something medically wrong with him. There are lots of serious diseases that are associated with frequent urination and weight loss, including kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, cancer, and more. We wanted to rule all of these things out right away. We took Raja to our vet office for some routine testing on the way home, doing a urinalysis (to rule out diabetes and look for kidney disease) and x-rays first, then planning to do bloodwork to look for systemic problems like kidney or liver disease. To our dismay, Raja had a very large tumor growing in his abdomen, potentially associated with one of his kidneys, liver or spleen, and it had already spread to the lymph nodes in that area, meaning it was virtually impossible to cure. Based on his prognosis and the fact that he was already showing severe signs of kidney disease, we elected to euthanize Raja rather than allow him to suffer any longer.
We didn't want Raja to have died in vain, so we thought we could share his story in the hopes that his story will help other pet owners to recognize early signs of disease that may be easily mistaken for other things. A lot of the time, especially in older dogs, acute behavioral changes can be associated with sickness. And a lot of the time, it's easy to attribute these behavioral changes with the changes that happen in every day life; the new pet, the new baby, moving, etc, and to convince ourselves that what we're seeing is due to anxiety, spite, jealousy, or fear. Raja's poor owners went through weeks of trying to help him feel more comfortable in his home, getting more frustrated as each attempt failed. The first step to working through behavior problems should ALWAYS be a medical exam, especially in older animals. Routine vet care (including screening tests like wellness blood work) can go a long way to early detection of problems like Raja's, hopefully to identify medical problems BEFORE owners are at their wit's end and the animal is too sick to be treated. If Raja's owners had taken him to the veterinarian when he started urinating in the house, could they have saved him? We'll never know; it very well may have been that it was already too late. But at the very least, they wouldn't have watched their relationship with the dog they loved deteriorate until they had no recourse left but to ask us to come pick him up.
Raja is still luckier than many dogs that die on the streets every day; he had owners that loved him dearly, and rescuers that held him while he took his last breathe. He will not be forgotten...