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Medical Behavior Interplay

By Robin Tierney

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The Interplay of Behavior and Medical Disorders - Insights from AVMA 2007 Convention Sessions

Following are notes from selected presentations at the American Veterinary Medical Association's 2007 conference.

Many neurological conditions, endocrine disorders, skin disorders, chronic disease and other medical conditions are at the root of behavioral issues. Behavior can change brain chemistry and structure. Prolonged stress sets off a cascade of reactions that can leave us with overstimulated or suppressed immune systems.

Expert vets shed light in a track of sessions so content-rich that they defy summary, but here's a snapshot of practical ideas:

* Help! Excessive grooming or indoor urination may be a cry for help. Dr. Ellen Lindell observed that many conditions that owners perceive as sudden onset turn out to have developed gradually. Roots can involve a change in owner's schedule, a new addition (person or pet) to the household, a house remodel with attendant noise (or shuttling the dog in a crate), cutbacks in exercise, a medication change, diet change, or impacted anal glands.

* I itch, therefore I ache. Dr. Vinl Virga focused on attention-seeking and owner-reinforced behaviors, noting how discomfort and pain can change personality as well as habits. So will insufficient physical and mental stimulation. Can cats and dogs hallucinate? Absolutely.

* Hormonal influence. Excesses and deficiencies of thyroid hormone may cause behavior changes as well as systemic metabolic changes. So can brain tumors, geriatric cognitive dysfunction syndrome [canine Alzheimer's], metabolic diseases such as renal.

* Medical problems in anxiety development. From Dr. Gary Landsberg's presentation: Anxiety is the anticipation of danger. Anxiety and stress set off brain activity; outward signs include piloerection - raised fur - in cats and dogs. Chronic stress can alter the brain, in turn changing behavior and sparking aberrant behaviors such as head shaking, hallucinations, escape attempts, excessive grooming, and also hyperglycemia.

Any disease that affects the central nervous system can alter behavior, as can pain (arthritis, dental disease, injury), decreased sensory function (vision and hearing loss add to fear), and altered motor ability.

A change in personality or mood, an inability to recognize or respond appropriately to stimuli and loss of previously learned behaviors suggest a possible neurological problem. Possible causes range from cranial nerve diseases to trauma to nutritional deficiencies to toxin ingestion.

FIV in cats can cause loss of socialization, elimination problems, disorientation and other symptoms. Endocrine (gland) disease such as hyperthyroid can manifest through anxiety.

Does stress cause medical problems? Yes, over time, it can affect the psycho-neural-endocrine-immune circuits that produce behavioral, physiological and immune effects that are designed to handle stress. Continued stimulation increases cortisol, disrupting normal body function, altering neurotransmitters, and resulting in abnormal behaviors such as compulsive disorders and increased vulnerability to pathogens. Essentially, the body loses ability to adapt and cannot return to a state of equilibrium (AKA homeostatis). You may see somatic signs (gastric upset, large bowel diarrhea, emotion-induced urination- and behavioral signs (self-trauma); hallucinations, changes in eating, drinking, grooming, elimination and sleep; changes in learning and previously learned behavior, and compulsive disorders (maladaptive ways to relieve or self-distract from tension).

Related Reading and Resources:

* Veterinary Services and Locators



* American College of Veterinary Behaviorists


* Holistic animal health



* New companion animal behavior website



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