Challenges of treating canine aggression
At our clinic, we see dogs whose behavior ranges from good to fearful. Many dogs exhibit behaviors that only their owners will tolerate, but they wouldn’t be considered dangerous. Some dogs, however, become very aggressive (a few even seem to be this way from birth). Statistics tell us more than 4.5 million dog bites occur every year in the U.S. alone.1 What is our job as veterinarians when dogs bite?
Our goal is to completely resolve the aggression so the dog is 100% trustworthy, or at least able to have a reasonable quality of life in a caring home. When assessing an aggressive dog, it is important to discover the triggers so the owners can live more safely while deeper cures are working. Sometimes, merely recommending a good trainer and using consistent rewards for positive behaviors is sufficient treatment, and certainly a good first step. Many clicker and positive trainers even specialize in treating aggressive dogs. But what if there is an underlying issue?
As conventional veterinarians, our options are limited to drugs, referral to behavioral specialists, physical restraint, pulling all the teeth, and euthanasia. Fortunately, we can integrate holistic modalities into our practice to increase the chances of improving the mental state of any dog or other domestic species.
POSSIBLE CAUSES OF AGGRESSION INCLUDE:
- One or a series of traumatic events in the dog’s life
- Mental triggers
- Poor training
- Hypothyroidism, low tryptophan or other medical condition
- Poorly functioning intestines with an weak microbiome, which causes a weak immune system
- Diet and food choices, which cause “allergies”
- Vaccine damage
- Instability, with no known reason for the mental situation
- Anxiety rather than true aggression.
DIAGNOSTICS FOR AGGRESSION
Diagnostics may reveal an underlying cause that can be treated, so it is important to run thorough tests. Blood work must include a comprehensive thyroid screen including total T4 and T3, free T4 and T3, T3 and T4 auto-antibodies, thyroid stimulating hormone and thyroglobulin auto-antibody (see Figure 1 at right). I recommend the services of Hemopet, Michigan State, or Antech. A complete profile may reveal a toxic liver or other medical issues, which can then be treated with holistic options.
Another diagnostic I have found very useful is Dr. Plechner’s endocrine blood immune panel, performed by National Veterinary Diagnostic Services (national-vet.com – call for submission procedures). This panel measures the relationship of IgA, IgM and IgG to the thyroid, cortisol and estrogen levels. Measuring these values will identify dogs whose aggression may respond to the Plechner protocol.2 Dogs with weak immune-globulins, specifically IGA, cannot absorb nutrients from their gut mucosa. This can lead to a weakened immune endocrine system, which may be a cause of aggression.
In the future, tests will be available to evaluate microbiome species that may cause neurotransmitter difficulty.
MANY APPROACHES TO A COMPREHENSIVE PHYSICAL EXAM
A careful history and physical exam is critical to determine the possible cause of aggression, and to guide us towards a modality selection. Chiropractic and osteopathic evaluation may reveal pain or other fascial issues causing the aggression. TCVM diagnostics, including tongue and pulse examinations, may point to specific Qi imbalances that may be the culprit. We have even found input from a medical intuitive or animal communicator to be useful.
TREAT THE GUT
As an integrative veterinarian, I treat the whole animal. I always start with the gut–brain connection, healing the intestines so the dog’s stronger immune system will improve mental health. The microbiome is critical for brain function, so we need to nurture and support the entire gastrointestinal tract. Intestinal microbes have many functions and are the precursors of neurotransmitters, which are key to mood issues.3,4 Consider the options that follow and remember to keep a journal to record changes with each treatment.5
- Feed a whole food diet with lots of green vegetables (kale, bok choy, zucchini, celery) and yellow/orange vegetables (butternut squash, carrots, beets), a minimal amount of grain (use high protein choices like quinoa or millet if needed), and a raw meat protein source that is “cooling” in nature from a TCVM food therapy perspective (fish or rabbit). Prolonged exposure to a high fat beef diet should be avoided because it can cause low tryptophan, which can lead to aggression in some dogs (Steve Brown, “Can high-fat beef-based raw diets lead to behavioral issues in some dogs?” IVC Journal, Vol 5 Issue 1, Winter 2014/15).
- Increase the gut flora with probiotics, digestive enzymes, colostrum, enteric glandulars, antioxidants and phytonutrients, as well as high quality Omega-3 oils that are supportive for gut flora.
- Since dogs (and cats) increasingly need dramatic treatment to restore normal intestinal flora, consider MBRT (microbiome restorative treatment), also called fecal transplant (Margo Roman, “Microbiome restorative therapy healing the immune system”, IVC Journal, Fall 2014). In my practice at MASH in Hopkinton, MA, we have seen aggressive dogs become more congenial and behave better with MBRT. (MBRT can decrease generalized inflammation, which is known to cause depression.6) Sometimes the benefits last for months and sometimes it is only a temporary fix. We have access to the stool of dogs that are calm and sweet; raw fed for generations; never had an antibiotic, commercial dog food or chemicals; and are minimally vaccinated.
SUPPORTIVE HOLISTIC TREATMENTS
While analyzing the diagnostics and formulating the treatment plan, and while the owners are working with a positive trainer, these approaches may ameliorate aggressive symptoms:
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Animal Talk – these two methods use tapping and Applied Kinesiology to shift the mental state. The tapping can be done on the dog (if safe) or on the owner. Tapping on the front of the dog’s head or yours, while thinking of positive reasons why the dog will be well behaved, can have amazing results. This extrapolates to reminding the owners to always use positive talk with their dogs. Classes are available online or you can add an income stream to your practice by teaching classes to your clients.
- Flower essences – this therapy is 100% safe and can be used along with conventional or alternative therapies. Rescue Remedy (always important to sell in your clinic) and other specific anxiety and aggression single or combination essences (Bach, Spirit Essences, Green Hope Farms, Anaflora) can be rubbed on the ears, put in a dosing water bowl so the dog can self-select, added to food, put on dog beds, etc. Dosing can be repeated as frequently as is helpful.
- Essential oils – specific oils, including lavender and possibly chamomile, may also be very calming to the animal (Dr. Shelton discusses anxiolytics on page 26 of this issue). Peace and Calming by Young Living, or similar combos from other oil companies, can be diffused or used as a light spray in water suspension. The quality of the oils is important, as discussed by Dr. Shelton in the Winter 2015/16 issue of IVC Journal.
The joy of integrative medicine is being skilled in many approaches, or referring to other veterinarians who specialize in complementary modalities, such as:
- TCVM: While aggressive animals may initially be poor candidates for acupuncture, treatment at home can include herbs in the food, Tui na, selection of foods according to Chinese Food Therapy, and acupressure when the dog is calm.
- Homeopathy: Remedies can be very successful when the symptom pattern is clear. When the aggression seems related to vaccinosis, homeopathy is the ideal approach.
- Chiropractic and Osteopathy: These treatments can resolve aggression when it is due to pain or even to past pain (Jeannie Waldron, Ann Marie Hancock, “Using osteopathy to diagnose and correct a displaced ovary in a ‘grumpy’ mare”, IVC Journal, Winter 2014/15).
- Drug therapy: When indicated by lab tests, thyroid medication can resolve aggression. Several large studies have shown significant resolution of aggression within a short time of beginning the medication.7 In addition, many veterinary animal behavior therapists recommend prescription medications for either aggression or anxiety. Considerations here include side effects, cost and administration concerns.
Treating aggressive animals is a challenge that often requires the attention of both veterinarians and animal behaviorists. Keeping an open mind to a variety of integrative options may stop an animal from hurting someone, and ultimately save his or her life.
LAST RESORT TREATMENT
When every attempt to correct aggression has failed, the American Veterinary Dental College (avdc.org/aggressivetreatment.html) has three recommendations – full mouth extraction, crown reduction to the gingival margin, or euthanasia. They comment that full mouth extraction needs general anesthesia, pre and post radiographs, and post-op pain medications. Crown reduction at the gingival margin also necessitates root canals for each tooth. Root canals can abscess, be a source of infection or inflammation for other parts of the body, and cause other issues as they lie along acupuncture meridians.8,9 Costs for these procedures are high, up to $4,000 for the canines and two incisors.
I have had excellent success using a diamond blade to file the canines, upper and lower incisors, and the third upper incisor, but not to the gum margins. If the dog’s teeth are mature, the dental pulp and nerves are closer to the root, so root canals are not needed. Younger dogs have very extended pulps, so may need extraction or root canals. I have done over 20 dogs, and only one adult dog with retained lowered canines where the pulp did not retract, therefore needing extraction. All options are offered and most clients have chosen this modified filing method as there is no risk from root canals and the cost averages $400. Filing seems to even decrease aggression as perhaps the dogs feel they don’t have the bite they used to, so become more trainable.
Archie, a six-year-old neutered wirehaired fox terrier, had been aggressive and anxious since puppyhood. He had gastrointestinal issues and puritis, and would attack his sister, pinning her down and dominating her.
Archie was diagnosed with an immune endocrine imbalance via an endocrine blood immune panel. He had low IgA, IgM and IgG, as well as low thyroid and elevated estrogen. He lived on a restricted diet containing a lot of tripe.
After ozone therapy and a fecal transplant, Archie’s personality changed within 30 hours. He began licking and grooming his sister, and his anxiety was gone. His amiable personality and ability to eat anything resulted in very grateful clients. Two-and-a-half weeks post microbiome treatment, he was dosed with Interceptor Milbemycin oxime – 30 hours later, he attacked and almost killed his sister. Interceptor is an intestinal antibiotic that kills many organisms in the gut. In Archie’s case, a reduction in aggression was directly associated with the microbiome. Another MBRT brought him back to more amiable balanced health.
Archie needed fecal transplants every three weeks until he received one from Lilly, a pregnant donor, which lasted five months. Having all the growth hormones and tissue-building activity really made a difference on his gut.
2Plechner, Al. “Cortisol Abnormality as a Cause of Elevated Estrogen and Immune Destabilization”, drplechner.com/pdf/elestrogen.pdf, p 1.
3Beaver, Bonnie, DVM. Canine Behavior. Elsevier Pub, p 150.
5Chambreau, C. Healthy Animal’s Journal. TRO Productions, 2003.
7Dodman et al. “The effect of thyroid replacement in dogs with suboptimal thyroid function on owner directed aggression”. J Vet Behav, 2013: 8:225-230.
8Kulacz, Robert, DDS and Levym JD, MD. “Toxic tooth: How a root canal could be making you sick”. November 1, 2014.
9Meinig, George E. Root Canal Cover Up, March 3, 2008.