Is Your Dog Misbehaving? Look for the Rash!

Not all dog behavior problems have behavioral causes or cures.

Posted Nov 02, 2019

BuzzFarmers (CC BY 2.0)
Source: BuzzFarmers (CC BY 2.0)

I remember once being at a scientific conference where a dog behaviorist was telling us, "Sometimes behavior problems don't have a behavioral cause. This became clear to me when my 2-year-old English Cocker Spaniel began to start chewing at the legs of the wooden furniture in my home. I knew that she was past the teething stage, and this problem had just recently emerged. So I set about planning how I would break her of this annoying habit. I thought I would start with the easiest plan, employing some of the foul-tasting solutions that could be applied to the furniture and theoretically should discourage her from this behavior.

"It just so happened that this was also the time for me to take my dog into the veterinarian for her annual set of shots and health check-up. During the course of the examination, my vet opened my dog's mouth and began manually poking around at her gums. She then looked at me and said, "We have a bit of a problem here. If it hasn't already started, it will eventually cause some severe itching, and to relieve that itching, she is going to start chewing on anything she can—and that will include your furniture. I can prescribe something which should clear it up in a week or two."

It did, and the destructive chewing behavior disappeared as well. And that is what taught me that sometimes behavioral problems don't have a behavioral cause and don't require a behavioral cure.

I was reminded of this incident while I was reading a recent research report. The investigative team was headed by Naomi Harvey from the University of Nottingham. Members of this group were aware of data, which showed that human patients with various forms of dermatitis, such as eczema, suffer quite a bit, especially when the symptoms include itching, inflammation, and secondary infections. If the condition is chronic, the long-term, annoying effects of the itching symptoms result in an increased stress level in people, and this stress has been linked to the development of various psychological difficulties, including depression and symptoms, which look much like post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reason that this was of interest to the researchers is that there is a common condition known as canine atopic dermatitis, which affects between 10 and 15 percent of all dogs, at least at some time in their life. This form of dermatitis is a chronic allergic skin condition, which is often visible as a red rash or a "hot spot" on the skin. As in humans, it causes sustained periods of itching and discomfort due to the inflammation.

Presumably, there is a buildup of stress in the dogs suffering from this, and there have been occasional reports that dogs with various allergic problems, including dermatitis, tend to be irritable and emotionally sensitive. The research team reasoned that the resulting psychological pressure and sustained stress might ultimately produce noticeable behavioral difficulties in dogs with itchy and painful skin problems as well.

The dogs used in this study were recruited from the pet-owning population as part of the Itchy Dog Project. Pet owners were encouraged to participate regardless of whether their dog suffered from symptoms or not. For the purposes of analysis, the sample was limited to only Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. This resulted in a sample of 343 dogs with a veterinary diagnosis of atopic dermatitis, and 552 control dogs that had no symptoms.

After the preliminary screening, the dog owners were asked to complete the C-BARQ questionnaire. This is a behaviorally validated inventory that contains 100 questions where dog owners are asked to assess the frequency or intensity of various common behaviors that they observe in their dogs. It is frequently used to determine the presence or absence of various canine personality factors and behavioral problems, including several varieties of aggression and fearfulness, touch sensitivity, attachment, and trainability. In all, this inventory produces scores that form 14 different scales.

The results were quite clear and startling. The research team had theorized that dogs with chronic itching would score lower on trainability, simply because this is a trait for which focus is required, and they hypothesized that the stress-inducing nature of the chronic itch would prove to be distracting and would reduce the dogs' success in learning new tasks. This turned out to be confirmed by the data, and the effect on trainability was directly related to the extent of the skin problem.

However, in addition to this, it was found that the more severe the dog's dermatological problems were, the higher were the scores for various behavioral difficulties based on the C-BARQ scales including:

  • Chewing objects
  • Stealing food
  • Excitability
  • Touch sensitivity
  • Mounting
  • Pulling on the leash
  • Eating feces
  • Hyperactivity and restlessness
  • Begging

In addition, the data showed that dogs with dermatitis were more likely to spend more time seeking comfort and attention from their owners, perhaps in the hopes of relieving their stress and anxiety.

At the very least, the results of this research suggest that if your dog begins to show behavior problems in any of the listed areas, you should not immediately launch into the search for a behavioral solution. A sensible first step would be to take your dog to your veterinarian to check him out for the possibility of symptoms of atopic dermatitis. Also, if you notice skin rashes and hot spots, it is sensible to take your dog to the vet because leaving this condition untreated might ultimately lead to the development of some of these behavioral problems; the stress associated with the itching and painful symptoms will build up over time.

The good news is that generally speaking, there are a number of successful treatments available for canine atopic dermatitis, which either eliminate the condition or greatly reduce the itching and pain, which are the stress-inducing symptoms. That treatment, then, has the potential to greatly reduce the intensity and frequency of this set of behavioral problems. This new research seems to confirm what I was told those years ago, namely that sometimes behavioral problems in dogs do not require behavioral solutions, but can be cured by physiological interventions.

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Naomi D. Harvey, Peter J. Craigon, Stephen C. Shaw, Sarah C. Blott and Gary C.W. England (2019). Behavioural Dierences in Dogs with Atopic Dermatitis Suggest Stress Could Be a Significant Problem Associated with Chronic Pruritus. Animals, 9, 813; doi:10.3390/ani9100813