Teaching An Old Dog Not To Dig Holes

Dr. John Kaya
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Wednesday - November 11, 2009
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In veterinary medicine, the most difficult cases are related to animal behavior. The reason is rooted in the fact that we can’t speak to our pets. Yes, we can communicate with them, but a heartfelt, in-depth discussion as to why Frisky the cat keeps urinating on the bed is not possible. As such, veterinarians need to gather as many facts as possible relating to the unwanted behavior. Success depends on getting to the underlying problem, whether it’s an external stimulus or a medical issue.

The following case posed quite a challenge, and I think you’ll see why.

“Beanie” was a 14-year-old Labrador mix that came into our hospital for a behavior problem. For two months he dug holes in the yard. Mrs. King, Beanie’s owner, tallied Beanie’s “hole” escapade at a whopping 100 holes. She said the craters were by no means small. Each was large enough to fit Beanie and a few of his favorite toys. He would just lay in the freshly dug hole, happy as can be. Mrs. King and her husband would fill the holes on a weekly basis, but Beanie kept on digging.

The first question that Mrs. King posed almost knocked me off my feet: “Doc, we think Beanie is digging his own grave. Is he dying?”

Wham, Mrs. King just threw a knockout punch.

After a short pause, I replied, “Well, he is an older dog, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. We just did a senior workup four months ago that included blood-work and X-rays. According to our records, Beanie is just fine.”

Mrs. King continued, “At first we thought it was the heat since it’s been a hot summer. My husband and I installed an AC unit in Beanie’s room, but it made no difference.”

Wow, it always amazes me at what owners would do for their pet. As a child, I often commented on the summer’s heat, but did my parents install AC in my room? No way. “Were there any other changes in the house: guests staying over, new furniture, construction next door, new dog food?”

“No other changes, Doc, just lots and lots of holes in the yard.”

I reviewed the medical records one more time, then considered a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction syndrome. “Mrs. King, Beanie may have a condition called CDS.”

“Is he going to die?” she asked.

“CDS is canine senility. Pets will display a variety of abnormal behaviors as they reach their senior years. In Beanie’s case, this may involve digging holes. We’re going to start him on a special diet designed to help dogs with this type of problem.”

“Is the food enough or can we give him some medication? Oh my goodness, my dog is going crazy.”

“Beanie is not crazy. He is just going through some changes as he ages. There is medication for this condition, but let’s try the food first. If he stops dig- ging holes, then I’d say the diet is working.”

About a month later, Mrs. King informed me that Beanie was no longer digging holes. He also started to play with his favorite ball again, which he hasn’t done in years. I told her to continue the diet and keep me posted.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a complex disease in older dogs. Sometimes changing their diet to include a heavy dose of antioxidants can help, other times we need to turn to meds. Beanie survived his hole-digging phase and “scored” in the process by getting a new air conditioning unit.

Some dogs have all the luck, but I guess that’s how the ball rolls if you live on The Wild Side.

Pet tip:

If your pet is displaying abnormal behavior as he/she enters the “golden years,” see your veterinarian. If it’s not a medical problem, then it might be just a sign of aging.

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