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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Expert Advice June 2014 Issue

Dear Doctor

Letters to Tufts Veterinarians - June 2014

The dog is staring too hard

Q My English mastiff, who has just turned three, became a certified therapy dog almost two years ago and regularly makes scheduled rounds at both a local hospital and two nursing homes. He is always well behaved and universally loved and appreciated by patients and staff alike. But one of the trainers in the weekly class he attends with about 10 other dogs is now saying that Sidney occasionally stares at his classmates, and he has restricted him from activities in which he has fully and successfully participated in the past. He must remain on leash even though there has not been even the suggestion of an incident. Sidney has never even barked in class and basically ignores his classmates in those rare instances that they bark at him. In addition, if I tell him to sit, he will not move — even if I leave the room for a couple of minutes. He waits for me to come back in and tell him it’s okay to do leave his position.

I understand that a stare might indicate a degree of canine anxiety. But can it be significant in an otherwise placid, well-behaved pet who has never acted aggressively in any manner?

David Chomsky

Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

Dear Mr. Chomsky,

A Staring in the dog world is akin to staring in the primate world. It’s seen as “kind of rude,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, head of our Animal Behavior Clinic. Dr. Dodman recalls visiting a primate clinic where he was told, “‘whatever you do, do not look the monkey in the eye.’ Of course, I then had to look the monkey in the eye,” he relates. The upshot, Dr. Dodman comments: the monkey “went ape, jumping up and down and screaming at me.”

In other words, a stare might be perceived by another animal not only as rude but as something of a challenge. “It’s okay to look,” Dr. Dodman states, “but across species, you’re then supposed to dip your headlights, so to speak, and look away. Think of someone cutting you off at the rotary — you tend to lean your head forward and stare at them. It’s symbolic. ‘Oh, you want to mess with me?’”

Granted, Dr. Dodman says, in the case of Sidney, keeping him on leash throughout his training classes may be an overreaction. After all, he is not lunging at other dogs or even barking. But his instructor now feels he’s picking up on a new bravado, or at least prickliness, in Sidney and probably believes the easiest way to follow through on his responsibilities to the other dogs, making certain that they stay safe, is to keep Sidney at bay. The last thing he’s going to want is the risk of one dog getting into a physical confrontation with another — all it would take is one other dog who doesn’t want to be stared down.

And the fact that Sidney behaves for you and does great at nursing homes is no proof that he will behave for a group of dogs. Sometimes aggression is directed solely at others of the same species.

One thing to keep in mind while you’re weighing the validity of the instructor’s claim about Sidney’s staring is that dogs don’t reach full mental and physical maturity until they’re between ages two and three — closer to three for a large breed like an English mastiff. While they’re no longer puppies after age one, they’re still “adolescents” till around their third birthdays. Sidney may now be feeling a new confidence among his peers and be more interested in strutting his stuff a little. And since even a small English mastiff is likely to weigh well over 100 pounds, that’s not something to take lightly.

It’s also worth looking at whether Sidney has been neutered. We assume he has, but if he hasn’t, neutering may help to attenuate any aggressive qualities he may possess. It should be noted that even with neutering, however, there’s still residual maleness, which comes with the potential for aggression. “A neutered dog is not an ‘it’,” Dr. Dodman explains. “He’s still a male with masculine traits. Castration is a way of turning down the dimmer. It does not turn out the light.”

While you’re considering the situation, you might want to have Sidney checked for hypothyroidism. Studies have suggested that hypothyroid dogs are more aggressive than they would be otherwise. Thyroid hormone replacement therapy appears to tamp down some aggressive tendencies.

You can train Sidney, too, if you see him staring at other dogs — not simply looking, but looking and then not looking away. Tell him to “leave it,” and then, when he complies, reward him with praise or even a delectable treat.

Good luck in resolving this. You might want to take Sidney to a veterinary behaviorist in your area for a professional assessment of the behavior to determine whether his staring at other dogs suggests a possible aggressive tendency.

A tumor on the backside

Q My 7-year-old male, an intact Portuguese water dog, just had a growth removed from below his tail. It was identified as a hepatoid gland adenoma. He is in excellent health otherwise. Can you provide any information on the prognosis?

Laurie Scanlon

Key Largo, Florida

Dear Ms. Scanlon,

A Your dog’s prognosis is excellent. The removed growth will affect neither the quality nor quantity of his life. Hepatoid gland adenomas are completely benign.

Hepatoid gland adenomas occur exclusively in the skin of the perianal area — the area around a dog’s behind. The glands in the skin back there — called perianal glands or circumanal glands — give rise to these tumors. Although “hepatic” means “liver” in medical terminology, hepatoid gland adenomas have nothing to do with that organ. It’s simply that the cells of the perianal glands, when looked at under a microscope, happen to look like liver cells. “Oid” means “like,” so the term “hepatoid” literally signifies “liver-like.” Hepatoid gland adenomas (also called perianal adenomas) are the most common type of tumor in that area of a dog’s body.

They also occur almost exclusively in male dogs that have not been neutered, so it’s no surprise that your intact male dog had one. In fact, one of the reasons to consider castrating a dog is to prevent this disease. It’s not always one tumor, and it’s not always small. “Sometimes there are multiple ones,” says Tufts soft tissue surgeon John Berg, DVM, “and I’ve seen them as big as a bagel.” They’re never life-threatening, he adds, but they can certainly make a dog uncomfortable, and the larger they grow (and they will keep growing even though they won’t spread, like a cancer), the more difficult they can be to remove.

Treatment, if the tumor(s) is relatively small, is usually castration. The growths will then shrink away on their own, and there won’t be any recurrence because the male hormones will have been removed. But if the growths have begun to get large, and perhaps ulcerate, treatment will start with castration but not end there. “I’ll typically perform a castration and see how much the tumor shrinks over the next several weeks,” Dr. Berg says, “and then once it has shrunken all it’s going to, I’ll remove what’s left.” That’s easier, he notes, than trying to remove a large tumor, which becomes a more complicated surgery.

Once the tumor is taken off, some of its cells are examined under a microscope to insure that the growth was not a cancer, which does occur in very rare cases.

Dr. Berg notes that there are instances in which hepatoid gland adenomas occur in dogs who are not intact males. “We occasionally see them in females or neutered males,” he says, “and in those instances we start thinking of other underlying causes. One of them is Cushing’s disease. With that condition, the adrenal glands secrete too much cortisol but also sometimes too many androgens — testosterone-like hormones” that can pave the way for the tumors.

If a neutered dog is a male and does not have Cushing’s disease, sometimes the reason for the tumor turns out to be an undescended testicle. A dog adopted from, say, a shelter that performs multiple castrations may be believed by his owner to be completely neutered, but an undescended testicle may have been missed. In such cases, it can removed as part of the tumor’s treatment.

We assume your own dog is still intact because you did not say he was neutered once the growth was removed. If you do not have him castrated, there is a reasonably good chance that more hepatoid gland adenomas are in his future. n

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