Monday, March 25, 2013

What a difference a drug makes.... Part 1

Hi everybody. Sorry about the unexpected hiatus - things here at Casa de Bella have been a little nutso. But I did want to finally finish up talking about Bella's experience with medications and our efforts with her at behavior modification. So here we are again.

The next few posts are going to cover a fair amount of chronological time but only 3 major events that changed, and significantly improved, Bella's quality of life (after it had become almost inconceivably mucked up.) This first part is about the realization that we hadn't quite gotten this whole Bella thing figured out just yet.

Part 1 - Bella bites Jan - again
I do love you, Daddy, I really do.
I'd love you even more if you gave me that chip.

We first put Bella on medications to ease her anxiety under the direction of Dr. Dodman in September of 2011. We had some ups and downs with the dosages through that fall and finally decided to keep Bella on a lower-than-recommended dose of Prosac. She became a member of the living dead whenever we tried to get her up to 30 mgs/day - the lowest recommended dosage for a dog her size. (Sensitive dog is sensitive.)

We had also changed her food to reduce her intake of protein and increased the amount of physical exercise and mental stimulation she was getting.

Bella had been doing very well with all the changes and her relationship with Jan was much improved. However, during the holidays that first year on the meds, her stress level began increasing culminating with a blow-out in agility class with Willy. Her cranky intolerance of any faux pas Jan made was also on the rise and finally came to a head with a very serious altercation in February 2012.

(Honestly, my husband is the most patient man on the planet and I love him dearly for putting up with this crap.)

Bella's relationship with each of us as individuals is complicated. Believe it or not, Bella sees Jan as her protector, seeking him out in times of distress. The problem is she sees herself as mine.

But it's really a little more complicated than that because I'm no shrinking violet whose dog thinks she can walk all over her. But for some reason, every now and then, Bella's fear of losing her most valued resource, that which she associates with getting her out of the shelter and into a home (me), takes over and she flips out.

Bella doesn't really have separation anxiety but this quote by Dr. Dodman describes what's going on with her perfectly:
"A recent study suggests that dogs suffering from separation anxiety are the pessimists of the canine world who always expect the worst in any situation. In the case of separation anxiety, their worst fear is presumably that their owners have gone, never to return." Source - Veterinary Practice News
In our case, I believe Bella's worst fear is that something will happen to me. So Bella lashes out at the presumed threat: Jan. It sucks but it is "understandable".

By that I don't mean it's excusable, I mean it's literally "understandable": we can understand the reasons for her overreaction. And if we can understand them, we can change them.

(Click to embiggen.)
In this case, we identified the following contributing circumstances:
  • We hadn't quite gotten the right combination or dosage of the drugs yet,
  • Bella's anxiety was ratcheting up again as she acclimated to the meds and our own stress levels rose over the holidays,
  • It was winter and Bella wasn't getting as much as exercise as she had been through the fall,
  • She had just suffered the altercation with her agility classmate, Willy, making her nervous and hyper-vigilant and finally
  • When she lives under constant stress and nervousness, Bella's "trigger" point is much lower.

But while we may have understood all this, we had no idea what to do about it. So off we went back to Dr. Dodman.

His first line of advice was to see if we could get Bella back up to the higher level of Prosac (Fluoxetine). We were much more successful getting her up to the 30 mg a day this time around. She hadn't turned into a zombie, she maintained her appetite and her enthusiasm and everything was looking up.

But then we noticed something else: the increased dose didn't zombie-fy her but it didn't seem to be doing much of anything at all. She was still fleeing the room at every tick and tock and every drop of a pine cone on the roof. And not just fleeing but fleeing and trembling and cowering in fear.

Bella was doing very well with Jan. In fact they spent a week alone together while I was traveling for work which seemed to further solidify their budding relationship. But we still weren't confident another outburst wasn't waiting in the wings. Her anxiety remained at epic levels and, even if she never reacted badly again, we knew her quality of life was suffering due to her continuing to live in constant fear - of life.

Not a happy state for our little heroine but don't give up on her just yet. We'll be back next week with the second part of this, the final chapter in Bella's redemptive arc.

And here's just a silly picture of my little wack-a-doodle to remind you she's actually a good girl.


  1. Oh Bella! Can't wait for the next installment - and for your suggestions of fun exercise routines!


  2. Two French BulldogsMarch 25, 2013 at 10:40 PM

    That is really interesting. Poor baby. We knew a friend with a doggy similiar but not as bad. She bit her owner twice out of fear of other pups. An animal behaviorist made her walk with her pup with 6 other dogs and their owners twice per week. Any time a dog was near it was treat time. That was 8 years ago. Never another episode
    Benny & Lily

  3. That doesn't sound completely familiar, but there are some things that do sound similar to our situation. Morgan doesn't ever view either of us as a threat. In her mind, it's us against the world. The noise sensitivity sometimes makes me wonder if she's the canine equivalent of autistic.

  4. Cali has a very difficult time with drugs - the pain meds that they have given her over the last couple of days make her completely dopey and depressed :( I'm interested to hear more about your sweet girl!!

  5. Aw, Bella, such a beautiful girl! You and Jan are both wonderful for being so patient with her and not giving up on her. She's worth it. I love that picture of her in the snow! Too cute and so funny.

    Marquie, Lassie & Petal

  6. Pretty interesting points there. I feel like my dog feels pretty protective of me too sometimes. She's definitely become more of a "nervous" dog later in her life. Fortunately, it's not anything too severe to require medication. Hopefully it stays that way.

  7. SUGAR: Golden WoofsMarch 26, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    Woof! Woof! Oh Bella. Hope the medication helps out ( n its not a medication that need to be taken for a long time). Try some calming scent in your home and spray on her coat or collar. Hoping to read some good news on your next post. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

  8. You guys have been through so much, I'm glad you finally have something that is working for you.

  9. Pamela | Something WaggingMarch 26, 2013 at 12:59 PM

    I love a good cliffhanger.

    Your story gives the possibility of hope to so many facing the same struggles. Time to share it.

  10. i sold SSRI's for 12 years- Prozac isn't that good for anxiety- paxil is. I recommend Paxil to my animal intuitive clients that need a little more than just talk-

  11. Correct. We are using Prozac to control Bella's aggression. Tune in next week when I will talk more about anxiety. ;)

  12. What a very long journey you all have been on together. Mom and I can't wait for next week!

  13. I'm sure you're doing everything right to help keep her that way. Most dogs will get a little less tolerant as they age - arthritis, illness, just general achy-ness can contribute to it. But as long as you're aware and keeping an eye on her, I'm sure she'll be fine. (Bella's situation and the conditions that led to it are pretty unique and extreme.)

  14. Aww, thanks for the share. I'm looking forward to finally talking about Bella we live with today as she's really such a good girl, I worry all this negative advertising is selling her short. ;)

  15. That's a very interesting thought and one I mulled over last night. I'm still not sure what I think about it but it's interesting to contemplate. I admit, I will have to do more research into autism.

    Bella has always been very aware of "up" and afraid of noises above her. My theory is it has something to do with her flying in cargo from PR to MA. I honestly think that traumatized her and, combined with her natural (genetic) wariness, had a greater impact on her behavior than it might have for another dog.

  16. Ha! Exercise routines - I think you discovered a great one yourself having found that neighboring Boxer friend. :)

    The biggest challenge with have with exercising Bella is that she's largely afraid of (and, as a result, unpredictable around) other dogs. But that's why we took up agility. We also fenced in part of her yard and she loves to run with me.

  17. I've had the opposite reaction with Meadow for the anxiety. The prozac worked really well. But I was warned it could cause aggression. Strange how one drug works so well for one dog yet not for another.

    Meadow also had appetite loss at first and we had to bribe her with a lot of fresh venison to get her to eat, but the appetite loss stopped at around the one month mark, right about the same time the drug started to do its magic...

    I'm interested to hear where you went from there.

  18. We are hoping that things are improving! Bella is a very lucky girl to have you two that are so determined to figure it all out and help her.

  19. I do agree that Jan is a saint in terms of patience. But, you both have committed yourselves so completely to understanding Bella's mindset that I admire you immensely. I have to be honest - although my Shyla is the most fearful dog who I've ever spent substantial time with, Bella is at another level. I am so impressed with all that you've done with her and how far you've come.