RESCUE and ANIMAL 28th March - 28th April 2019 - Issue 143

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My Newfoundland dog, Benji has been diagnosed with ‘self-injurious’ behaviour as he chews and licks his foot continuously. I have been told the only treatment has to be drugs, is this right?


Dean Hart answers your questions Dean Hart is a Clinical Behaviourist and Tutor at the Canine Studies College and specialises in helping mature students set up and develop their own business within the canine industry. Visit

My dog is aggressive with me? My 6-year-old retriever has suddenly started to be aggressive with me. He has never been like this before, in fact he has become less active and has put weight on too. I thought his weight may be making him irritable, is this possible?


Poor you this must be quiet upsetting. Given there is a sudden change in his behaviour, this suggests the possibility of a medical condition. Has he had a ‘blood screen’ recently? From your description, he may have an underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism, so he may not be producing enough thyroid. This is more common in mid to large sized breeds and usually those over the age of three. This does sound like him. Hypothyroidism can alter behaviour leading to aggression, with most dogs becoming lethargic, like yours and potbellied, appearing as if they have put weight on. Surprisingly, some dogs with this disease may become hyperactive. Low thyroid levels can cause unstable levels of the neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine in the brain. (Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that transmit nerve messages). Serotonin and dopamine are involved in balancing mood and emotional control, the thresholds for his aggression. Mood changes appear as if the dog is ‘depressed’, also known as ‘mental dullness’ but you haven’t mentioned this. In addition, low thyroid alters the body’s ability to balance cortisol levels, causing higher levels in the blood. Therefore, your dog is probably in a constant state of ‘stress’, cortisol being a hormone usually released at times of stress. This is likely why he is irritable. Other typical clinical signs you may expect to see with this disease are asymmetrical alopecia, poor coat condition with hair becoming dry and possibly brittle, with or without excessive coat loss. Hyperpigmentation (an increase in the natural colouring of his skin) and anaemia (low levels of red blood cells) and he may have developed an intolerance to the cold. If he hasn’t had a recent blood test to test his thyroid levels, take him to your vet for one at the earliest appointment available, hypothyroidism can be managed with appropriate treatment. It is important that you take your dog to the vet for this whether he is showing any other symptoms or not. If your dog’s blood results show no indication of a thyroid deficiency, we can then explore other factors that may have altered your dog’s behaviour! Fingers crossed for you.




Poor Benji, this sounds as though it is quite sore. Without knowing more about Benji and being privy to his medical records I can only provide a general reply. I am assuming there is no pain, discomfort or clinical reason causing him to carry out this behaviour. It is important to remember that selfinjurious behaviour (SIB), is a symptom of a behaviour dysfunction and not a disease ‘in its own right’. Therefore, it is likely that Benji suffers with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that leads to the repeated chewing of his foot rather than the chewing being a more deliberate act of self-harm. Inappropriate behaviour tends to be expressed as a compulsive obsession of normal activities, in Benji’s case this may be self-grooming. Because OCD is usually a species typical behaviour produced when an animal finds certain living conditions or environments stressful, a thorough assessment of Benji’s environment and everyday interactions is needed. This is not to attribute blame to you as an owner but to assesses Benji’s perception of his environment and to observe his coping mechanisms. In some situations, owners may be completely unaware that a dog finds certain events or stimuli as stressful or threatening. Once identified his treatment would consist of environmental and behavioural modification. However, the longer Benji has carried out OCD the more resistant it will be to modification and then the only strategy would be to supplement modification with pharmacological therapy. I am not clear who has diagnosed his condition or advised you but moving forward it would be sensible to contact a qualified and experienced canine behaviour practitioner to work with your vet to assist you in helping to resolve Benji’s difficulties. I hope this answers your question as best I can.


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