Dear Dr. Fox:
We have a lovely little 8-year-old Shih Tzu we adopted seven years ago from a shelter. She seems to know her bedtime, so she retires to the laundry room on her own at 9 p.m. to spend the night on her pillow.
However, she has developed one unusual habit: Before she falls asleep, she scratches on the dryer door vigorously with her front right paw, then the left. (We are not worried about the dryer.) She continues this for 10 to 15 minutes. Sometimes, she will stop and then start again for a few more minutes.
We take her for walks twice a day, about one mile each time. She lets us know when she wants to go into the back yard. She is in good health. What do you think of this?
P.S., Silver Spring
DF: Your dog's ritual-like behavior might have started as a comfort-seeking activity that provides some release of anxiety before sleeping.
Dogs will instinctively turn and repeatedly paw around and around to make their lying area comfortable and clear of objects that might cause them injury. My guess is that the dryer door-pawing behavior was triggered by sounds the machine made, possibly at a high frequency that you could not hear, that upset your dog. Many devices produce such sounds, even when they are not operating but remain plugged in.
Dear Dr. Fox:
I have a 4-year-old standard poodle. At 5 months old, she had her first seizure. This happened in the middle of the night, while she was sleeping in her crate. The day before, I had her at a kennel because we were going to be out all day and didn't have anyone to come over and let her out. She stayed there overnight. Over the next couple of days, she had a few more seizures, and then had them periodically over the next few months.
After testing and close observations, it seemed that she had these seizures only at the time of grooming. I don't know whether something happened at the kennel that first time that upset her or caused stress, but after making the connection, I had a mobile vet come to the house and groom her in a grooming truck. For two years, she was totally fine. She liked the girl who groomed her, and she got right into the truck and was a good girl. I could see her in the window; she sat nicely and everything was fine.
Then, one day, all of a sudden, she climbed onto the table and had a seizure again. Same girl. Same truck.
We tried a few more times until the groomer, understandably, said she just could not groom her anymore.
Then I tried going to the groomer at the vet's office. The first time, she was fine; the next time, as she knew what was going to happen, she again started having seizures. They seemed to get more severe, so the vet put her on 64.8 mg of phenobarbital twice a day. She is on that now. We tried grooming her last month, and she had a seizure. We then tried giving her a dose of gabapentin, and then a larger dose of gabapentin the next time, and she still had seizures. My vet is going to bump up her phenobarbital dosage.
The only time she has seizures is during grooming. If she were a Lab or a similar breed, I would just bathe her at home and learn how to cut her nails. I am at my wits' end, and I think the vet is, too.
S.H., Chesterfield, Mo.
DF: I appreciate the difficult situation for your poor dog, and for you, having to cope with episodic seizures related to the stress and anticipatory anxiety over grooming.
Regrettably, poodles need regular grooming, as you point out. But I would not give her the phenobarbital or any other anti-epileptic drug on a regular basis, because of the long-term side effects.
The first step is to raise the seizure threshold. I would therefore make coconut oil the main fat in your dog's diet, because it has been shown to help control seizures.
Another suggestion: Add more turkey to her diet as a source of tryptophan, and a natural daily supplement containing L-theanine (such as PetzLife's @-Eaze). Both substances have calming properties. Also, avoid all wheat ingredients in the dog's diet, including treats.
Before your dog's next grooming session, put a few drops of essential oil of lavender on a bandana around her neck. About 30 to 45 minutes before the appointment, give her a light dose of Xanax (prescribed by your veterinarian).
If those don't do the trick, your vet could then try a single dose of phenobarbital before the session — but not day in and day out, unless your dog starts to have seizures more often.
Dear Dr. Fox:
Our 13-year-old cat, Gussy, has started a new habit of crying when he gets into his litter box. It's not a cry like he's in pain; it's a long yowl, as though he's really sad. My cousin heard him and said her cat made that kind of sound after her other cat died. I'm scared that Gussy might be predicting that someone is going to die in my family.
M.C., Fargo, N.D.
DF: That is quite possible, and it could be Gussy. Any time an animal shows any sudden change in behavior, one should consult with a veterinarian. Talk to someone there to see whether an appointment is warranted on the basis of your concerns. Many veterinarians now make in-home visits, which most cats prefer.
Michael W. Fox, author of a newsletter and books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Send letters to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106