Animals Have Superpowers
I imagine you’ve come across this in other vet blogs or articles, but there is a particular piece of technical terminology that we employ when we just can’t quite pinpoint the nature of a particular patient’s malady: ADR. Translation: Ain’t Doin’ Right. (Sounds like it could be a southern thing, but I think they use it up north too.)
These cases can get frustrating, especially when the physical exam and whatever other tests I can talk the clients into running come back totally normal. Then I feel like I’ve got to try and think like the patient (i.e., the pet) to see what’s bothering him or her — which, frankly, I just can’t do.
Once, I had a client call because her Italian Greyhound was acting really weird and anxious at night. The details escape me, but it seemed to happen when the owner’s husband — a police officer — worked nights. He’d been doing this shift for years, but all of a sudden the dog started freaking out when he was gone; pacing, panting, shaking, etc. The dog had epilepsy, and I think we’d changed his meds, so I thought maybe it was a side effect.
We talked about using Benadryl or something along those lines to relax the dog. Maybe exercise him in the evenings to tire him out. Behavior is not my forte, so I’m sure I gave the client the info for the local vet behavior specialist.
I didn’t hear from her for awhile. The next time I saw her, I asked how the night anxiety thing was going.
"You’re never gonna believe this," she said.
Turns out she (the owner) had an irregular heartbeat, and once she was diagnosed and had a pacemaker put in, the dog went back to normal and never acted weird again.
I had another client who had a yellow Lab who had started licking his legs maniacally, giving himself these large ugly sores called lick granulomas. It’s almost the dog version of a drug addiction. They get hooked on this licking, and supposedly it releases endorphins that stimulate receptors similar to narcotics. Often they are caused by allergies, sometimes anxiety.
The client had undergone back surgery and had been home for several weeks, recovering full time. Her dogs had gotten used to having her around all the time. When she went back to work, the strange behavior began.
I chalked it up to anxiety over the owner going back to work, with a little allergy thrown in. The owner insisted that it had to be something more. I patiently stuck to my guns, based on the evidence I had. She said that he was acting like a completely different dog, even when she was home. I gave her the behaviorist info.
Behavior vets are more suited to these situations because they do housecalls. They see the environment and are better at elucidating what is causing the problem. I just can’t profess to even hazard a guess at what the dog is thinking.
Anyhow, the client called one day to give me an update on the dog. I cringed as I was returning the call because I figured she hadn’t called the behaviorist and was going to make me try to psychoanalyze her dog again.
Apparently she’d been in her bedroom and something happened — the lights went out or something. Suddenly the dog starts acting normal. Lights come on and he’s weird again. The client starts looking around the room and comes across a weather radio that she forgot she’d plugged in. She unplugs it: normal goofy lab. Turns out the radio was emitting some kind of sound at a frequency she couldn’t hear, but that was was torturing her dog. No way in hell I could have figured that one out. I’m glad she did.
I once had a dog patient develop a fear of being in the house because his owner got a new water cooler and he didn’t like the bubbly noise. I’ve also had dogs develop fears of going outside because of hot air balloons flying overhead. I even once heard a story of a cat that would refuse to use the litter box in the laundry room when the dryer was running; it didn’t like the noise.
Then there's my dog, Scully, who is half blind and 98 percent deaf (she can still hear the food bowl). She was sleeping on the couch the other day when I came home (she doesn’t wake up anymore when I arrive since she can’t hear me). I walked by her on the way to the bathroom, and on the way back I saw her awake, sniffing the air. My scent, wafting by as I walked, was all she needed to alert her of my presence.
Point is: Animals are tuned in to their environment in ways we can’t even comprehend. They hear what we can’t. They see what we don’t notice.
Want to learn more about this? Read anything by Temple Grandin. That’s what most of her work is about: helping us "normal" people gain just a tiny sliver of understanding of what the world looks like to an animal.
Henry Beston puts it this way (I don’t know who he is, but he beautifully captures how I feel about animals and their "super powers" of perception):
We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.
We vets do the best that we can to try to see the world through their eyes and ears, but in the end, it’s virtually impossible. We just do the best we can with our big brains and dull senses to figure out what’s ailing our animal friends.
Dr. Vivian Carroll
Image: Susan Schmitz / Shutterstock