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Being a pet columnist or a blogger is sort of like teaching 5th grade. Just when you think you’ve seen and heard it all, someone asks a question like this:

Dear Dr. Yin:

Do you think it is possible that a great deal of behavioral problems in dogs may be due to constipation?

My academically honed intuition—as well as the fact that a friend had suggested I check my e-mail—told me to examine the sender’s name carefully. Just as I suspected. It was a message from my running-club friend thinly disguised under his dog’s name. Knowing that this friend was probably sitting at his computer anxiously awaiting an answer, I promptly replied:

“Dear Geordie:

Yes, I think a great deal of behavioral problems in dogs may be related to constipation, but not in the dogs.”

Fun and games aside, Geordie’s owner did have a point. Many medical problems in pets do masquerade as bad behavior. It’s just that constipation isn’t one of the most common medical causes. On the other hand, other potty problems are high on the list. For example, a reader or two wrote something like this, “My 14 year old cat used to be good about going in the box but now she urinates and poops an inch or two outside.” Some owners might assume that this cat is spiteful, but a quick check in the kitty manual of revenge reveals that cats, or for that matter dogs, may mark their territory, but they don’t poop or urinate on property to make people or peers mad. Imagine if they did. Then the ultimate payback would be for fighting felines or feuding Fidos to leave their smelly surprises on a rival housemate’s food bowls or favorite toys. No, spite doesn’t even make the list here although stress-related behavior problems or a less than superclean litter box might. But in a 14 year old cat’s case it could also be as simple as arthritis. Old kitty could be too painful or weak to climb into her box. A ramp leading to her box or lower edges, as well as a veterinary exam and medications, if needed, would tell if this was her tale.

If your cat or dog’s not arthritic but suddenly starts making pungent yellow puddles in the house, he could have a slew of other medical problems. These include diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, liver insufficiency and thyroid hormone imbalance where the pets produce more urine than a watermelon on diuretics. Then there’s the dog with neurologic disease that just doesn’t know she’s going or, more commonly, the cat or dog with the urinary tract infection. Your veterinarian can differentiate these diseases based on urine tests and a complete blood profile, although sometimes more specific tests are also required.

Other behavior changes are constantly throwing owners off track too. For instance, even barking can be a sign of medical disease. One strange case that I saw was an elderly random-bred Rover who barked a lot when he was alone. Says his owner, “We just moved to a new house where we keep him in the yard a lot. Now he barks some during the day and barks a lot at night.” At first this looked like a clear case of separation anxiety, but then I found out that Rover eats when the owner is gone, barks even when she’s in plain sight, and in the house he’s happy to sit sedentary rather than keeping a constant eye on the owner. Not a dog that’s pining away for his favorite person.

The answer to one question clued me in on his problem. “How does he get along with your other dog?” I asked. “He follows Shadow around like a shadow,” she says. That made me wonder if Rover was using Shadow as his personal seeing-eye dog. Since dogs can’t read eye charts—not even the ones with the pictures of bones and dog toys— I opted for a make-shift obstacle course in the exam room both in the dark and in full light. This plus an examination of his retinas told the story. He was blind at night and close to it during the day, and in the new house and yard he couldn’t quite find his way.

The number of diseases and their odd related behaviors abound. From cats that cry to be fed but then won’t eat—they may have severe dental disease or another oral problem—to the dogs that suddenly gobbles everything that’s remotely edible. They could have one of several endocrine imbalances.

In short, a good deal of behavior problems may be related to…well, maybe not constipation. But if you see a sudden behavior change or a behavior you can’t explain, don’t assume Bowser is just acting up. Instead, consider a visit to the vet.


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