Ep. 07: How Medical Concerns Affect Behavior with Dr. Jennifer Summerfield

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In this episode, we interview Dr. Jennifer Summerfield, veterinarian, and professional dog trainer. Dr. Summerfield focuses on treating behavior problems including aggression, separation anxiety, and compulsive behavior issues.

She meets with clients through a private veterinary practice where she has the opportunity to blend her two passions, medicine and behavior. She also writes a blog and hosts a podcast, offering accessible training and behavior information to dog owners. She shares her life with her three Sheltie boys (Remy, Gatsby and Clint) that compete in a variety of dog sports including AKC conformation, agility, and obedience.

You can read Dr. Jen’s Dog Blog here and listen to her podcast, Dog Talk, here.

During the episode, we discussed how medical concerns can have an impact on behavior.  

What kinds of medical problems can impact behavior?

  • Pain
  • GI issues
  • Hormonal issues, such as, thyroid problems and cushing’s disease  
  • Neurological concerns

What about hypothyroidism? How often is it a cause of behavior problems?

According to Jennifer, and the cases she has seen, not that often. Most of the time, pet parents come into Jennifer’s practice knowing to ask for this test and hoping that this might point to the behavior shift they are experiencing. However, it is not that easy. Most times when Jennifer runs this test it comes back normal, suggesting that the dog’s behavior might be environmentally related and not medical.  

What are some red flags that should make us think about medical issues as opposed to “just” behavior?

  • A very sudden behavior change in an older pet (6 and up) without any history of this behavior issue.
  • Other symptoms that would suggest a medical issue. For example, chronic picky eaters or chronic loose stool.   

Should trainers always try to “rule out” medical issues before starting a behavior modification plan? When is a vet visit appropriate?

  • It’s important to know what a general vet visit can tell us and what it cannot. It’s not as comprehensive as we would like.
  • Here is what we can tell at a vet visit:
  • Physical exam can provide us information if there is an ear infection, allergies, dental disease or a concern with the dog’s gait.
  • A general blood panel, CBC (complete blood count) can test, red blood cell, white blood cell count, evidence of infection or organ dysfunction. This is useful but not the complete picture. For example, we cannot tell if the dog has a brain tumor or GI issues with these tests.   

We know that some medications can be used to treat behavior issues in dogs. Are there any meds that can actually *cause* issues like aggression or anxiety as potential side effects?

  • If your dog is taking a new medication, and he/she is exhibiting a new behavior concern, consult with your veterinarian right away.
    • Xanax/Valium
    • Prednisone
    • Acepromazine
    • Apoquel
    • Phenobarbital

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