Sick baby growls and bites family

Posted by almondjoy
Jan 4, 2011
I have a loving Maltese with serious health problems, and he's becoming not so loving these days. At 12 weeks he was diagnosed with liver shunt; and now at age 4 the vet says he has hepatic encephalopathy. I didn't find a lot about it on the veterinary side, but in human medicine it lists: Hepatic encephalopathy is brain and nervous system damage that occurs as a complication of liver disorders. It causes different nervous system symptoms... Confusion, disorientation, mood swings, daytime sleepiness, forgetfulness, alteration in consciousness, abnormal mental state, seizures, restlessness, muscle stiffness, and in humans--speech impairment. When he is not doing well he acts drunk, and grouchy, and now he may suddenly growl and snap or bite for no apparent reason. I can no longer groom him without being bitten. Last week he bit my daughter on the nose and it's leaving a scar. Today he was cold so I was putting a sweater on him as usual, and he growled, laid his head on my leg and continued to growl and threaten biting. I've learned shushing him seems to work better than scolding. But it's really concerning when he comes to you wanting to be picked up and still growling and may snap at any moment.
Obviously, I can't expect a miracle here. And I'm walking a fine line between quality of life for the dog, and for the family. At some point we'll likely have no choice but to put him down, but I'm trying to give him a chance as long as possible. Most with his disease are put down immediately as puppies--he's 4. Does anyone have suggestions for minimizing the biting and growling? All of the family members have been bitten numerous times, and I'm afraid this may become a serious incident for a family member or outsider. Any advice please?

Two months ago I rescued a quality purebred male cocker spaniel hours before he was headed for the shelter. We thought he might ease the separation anxiety for the kids should we lose the Maltese. The two have adjusted better than expected, and the Cocker is soooo affectionate. But I knew we were at square one on training when he stole lunch off the dining table while we were getting drinks. But that's another inquiry...
Posted by KOPCaroline
Jan 4, 2011
Hey almondjoy,

Poor kid! Hepatic shunts arent much fun, especially when they lead to an encephalopathy. I'm sure you know its a result of the liver not functioning properly to remove toxins, which then get into the nervous system, causing various signs in the animal. Once it develops, as you said, theres not much to be done, except treatment of individual symptoms.

Put yourself in your dogs situation, you're very sick, and your illness causes you to feel doubly distressed since it plays with your nervous system, affecting your thought processes and motor coordination. If someone were interacting with you, even in nice ways, and hurt you because you can't tell them what you feel like, you'd react the only way to get the message across - aggression.

Theres not much I honestly know to say to help decrease his growling and snapping - they are a result of his illness and a natural way for a dog to react to pain/distress. You could talk to your vet about medications you could try to decrease anxiety/sedate him, but be sure to ask about the effects on your Malteses' overall personality - often reducing pain also reduces interactions and responsiveness. You could try a muzzle, though I understand that might be a bit uncomfortable for you and your dog, its hard to get them to understand its a precaution, not a punishment, especially when the dog is otherwise a lovebug. Muzzles will, however, let you interact how you see fit, such as picking him up when he wants, but prevent actual bites when hes in pain or grumpy.

You can try speaking calmly to him when hes obviously worked up and growling, before touching him. Wait until hes settled and quiet, then gently pet and stroke him, eventually working up to picking him up. Doing everything gradually with him is probably a good idea, instead of just scooping him up suddenly. It will help him prepare for it, and maybe decrease the likliness of his acting out. Try to set a routine for when you will pick him up - for example: speak calmly, then pat just his head, then whole body, then use both hands on him, then gently pick him up. If you establish routines for how you play/pet/handle him, he will learn whats coming and this could help him react better.

I'm happy to hear he's coping well with your new pup, I hope they can be good friends and that your cocker helps take the edge off a bit

Its sad to hear about the effects of the encephalopathy, but I'm proud of your little guy for coping for so long! And proud of you for sticking with him! As you said, a tough decision may be in the future, but as long as he's more happy than not, I hope my suggestions help a bit and that you get valuable, loving time with your boy.
Posted by almondjoy
Jan 5, 2011
Thank you for such a warm and informative response. You thought you didn’t know what to say, but actually you gave a lot of insightful help.
Charming Chad has been under the care of some highly revered vets and on flagyl and lactalose medications as well as prescription food every day for 4 years. It’s a roller coaster of good days and bad, but we cope. He had done surprisingly well for 3 years, but this last year has been tougher for both of us. You see, I also live with chronic disabling illness, debilitating pain from spinal injury and discomfort daily from multiple sources. I can’t walk 50 feet without gasping for breath; I have diabetes, a defibrillator ICD for heart failure, lupus and more. When Chad was first diagnosed I asked why God would send me a dog in such need when I had so much required to care for myself. The answer was, “Who better to understand his needs and commit to give him the care than someone who is walking in his steps? What would I want done for me; and if not me, who would do it?”
Thanks for the suggestion that pain/sedation medications are an option to suggest to the vet when I feel it might be helpful. We’ve made some simple lifestyle changes. We went from full show grooming to a short shave and sweaters to keep warm because sometimes we just don’t feel like being bothered unnecessarily. We use the muzzle when performing necessary grooming. We try to stick to our diets, but sometimes we cheat and enjoy a treat because ya’ gotta have a little pleasure now and then. We may pay for it later when he vomits or my blood sugar spikes so we try to get back on program and do better.
Since Chad has limited communication skills, I’m trying to educate the human family to let him initiate and dictate contact. Speak to him, but if he growls, leave him alone, let him come to you. Speak more softly, don’t blast with a harsh voice in his face (who wants to attend a rock concert with a migraine headache?). As you pointed out we need to move more slowly and gently (the kids need to work on their hyperactivity and shouting over each other anyway) . Now that this point has been reinforced by “the expert” maybe they’ll take heed. Thanks. Myself, I need to work more on speaking gently to get his reaction before picking him up. You gave great tips on that procedure.
The Cocker Spaniel, Stewart age 3, is 4 times the size of Chad and healthy other than an ear infection. But he jockeys for position for love, praise and attention, sometimes stepping over or on Chad to get it. Last night I came home in considerable pain, both dogs greeting me jumping, with poor Chad being trampled, I crashed on the couch, and Chad jumped up snuggling beside me. Stewart jumped into Chad’s space stepping on him to get in my face. While I struggled to hold Stewart off, Chad looked up at me as to sigh, got up and walked across my lap to wedge himself between my other leg and the arm of the couch. I had to make Stewart lie down, then pet them both together.
Stewart’s not mean, just not paying attention in his excitement. Other times Stewart will actually look for/check on Chad or fetch and lead him back in the house. So my next challenge it to train Stewart with some basic manners so he will be less of a challenge for Chad. I’m looking to your training materials for coaching in that. The family learns better communication skills, Stewart learns better manners, I have purpose in my life, and we’re all the better for what Chad has taught us. Chad got the right home after all. Thanks again.
Posted by kjd
Feb 7, 2011
Thank you, almondjoy. Your story of Chad, you, and your entire family is very uplifiting.