Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Body-Mind Connection in Dogs

Is a medical problem causing your dog's behavioral issues?

Key points

  • Troubling dog behavior can reflect hidden medical problems.
  • Behavioral veterinarians are trained to look for body-mind connections in dogs.
  • Dog behavior issues can be rooted in allergic reactions, hormonal imbalances, gut problems, and other issues.
Daniel Hernández Cervantes/Pexels
Daniel Hernández Cervantes/Pexels

Veterinarians in Spain recently reported on an interesting canine body-mind behavior mystery.

An 18-month-old mixed-breed male dog had been behaving aggressively toward unfamiliar people and suffering from environmental phobias. His behavior was puzzling because this dog lived in a stable domestic home, had no known trauma, and was adequately socialized as a puppy. Behavior modification training and prescriptions of fluoxetine and trazodone did not change the problem.

Ultimately, two clues were illuminating. The first was that although the dog was reproductively intact, he showed no interest in females in heat. The second clue was that the dog had a bifid nose. In a bifid nose, each nostril is enveloped in its own structure, so the dog’s nose looks split down the middle.

Veterinarians ordered additional CT and MRI tests and concluded that the dog had a congenital variation. The vomeronasal organ, a vital sensory structure, had never formed inside this dog’s snout, and a related structure, the septum pellucidum, was also missing.

These deficits made the dog unable to smell pheromones or detect sensory information that helps other dogs navigate social relationships. As a result, this dog struggled to prevent and resolve conflicts and was profoundly fearful of the unfamiliar. Cases of similar aggression have been reported in domesticated cats and pigs with anomalies of the vomeronasal organ.

Common Medical Issues Behind Problem Behavior in Dogs

While a rare structural anomaly can lead to troubling canine behavior, more common medical issues are also linked to body-mind challenges in dogs.

In one study, 141 dogs that suffered from dry, itchy, and chronically inflamed skin had a corresponding increase in problem behaviors: aggression, fear, touch sensitivity, anxiety, excitability, and attention-seeking. Owners also reported that these dogs were less trainable.

Veterinarians recognize that skin rashes, poor-quality hair coats, weight loss or weight gain, limping, and fever are all visible indications of underlying medical issues. Basic blood and urine tests may reveal additional common issues. But first impressions don’t always give the whole picture.

“There's still a lot of stuff that's not going to show up on that physical exam or the initial screening tests,” said behavioral veterinarian Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC. “And those are the ones I find often slip through the cracks.”

The culprit might be “anything that causes discomfort,” he said. “That could be a level of itch that's not causing redness. It's not causing hair loss; it's just creating irritability.”

It might be low-grade osteoarthritis, orthopedic musculoskeletal issues, or connective tissue pain.

"Just watching that animal move from right to left, you're not going to see it because they're not holding up a limb or skipping in their gait or anything along those lines. It's not that they're limping, it's not that they're lame, it's just that everything hurts," he said.

Other common hidden medical problems that cause behavioral issues include:

  • Sleep deprivation. This “could be because of itchiness or pain, or it could be a new baby, or the family moved into a new condo, and the next-door neighbor works the night shift. So the dog is vigilant all night long,” said Pachel. “We know sleep deprivation creates very significant issues from a cognitive standpoint.”
  • Thyroid disease. This is typically low thyroid production.
  • Steroid-related imbalances. Cushing’s and Addison’s disease disrupt a dog’s cortisol and stress response.
  • Gut imbalance. This can range from cramping and physical discomfort in the stomach to levels of inflammation. Some gut imbalances lead to malnutrition, or show up as urgency to eliminate or frequent accidents in the house. When gut problems damage the animal’s relationship with their people, this can increase other risks.

Pachel said, "We may have animals that, despite being fed well, suffer from malnutrition. They're struggling to keep weight on because the food is essentially passing right through the gut without being absorbed and utilized the way that it should.

When animals can't control their bowels or bladder, there is the risk of relinquishment, or in some cases, even euthanasia, or they may be subjected to less than humane treatment if someone doesn't understand that this is, in fact, a medical issue."

Pets may show behavioral symptoms before a precise disease is revealed on specialty bloodwork. When owners come to Pachel and report that training protocols have not helped, and psychotropic medications haven’t helped, “We often circle back around to the physical issues, both the visible and the invisible, and say, did we, collectively, overlook something?” After gathering more data, it can be possible to tease out what is happening, he said. “And then we can make a plan for addressing what we find.”

More from Wendy Lyons Sunshine, MA
More from Psychology Today