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Ringing in the new year with a howl: On vocalizing behavior in pets

Posted Jan 01 2010 10:00pm

We rang in the new year in South Florida style: A round of stone crabs and a home-made dinner, a group howl with the dogs at my parent's house (you should try this cathartic trick sometime), then some Perrier-Jouet at the Biltmore, a close-up fireworks display and, unexpectedly, a party-crashing escapade courtesy of my sister’s brash antics.

It was great fun...until we arrived at home and found Vincent expressing pain in vocal tones formerly unheard of in three years of Khuly household life.

Vincent is a three-and-a-half year-old French bulldog whose life thus far has been defined more by his obnoxiously Napoleonic behavior and rough-and-tumble disposition than by any kind of physical dysfunction (save his extreme flea allergy and moderate atopy, which I now ungratefully discount due to its autopilot management).

That's us, btw:

So it was that when we observed him in obvious discomfort it was all the more surprising. This is one super-tough dog, after all. But then, he’s always been a vocal one:

Someone at the door? Vincent whoops it up before anyone else knows what’s happening. Almost time to go home from work? Vincent starts in on his characteristically plaintive howl. Another dog threatening his space or challenging his resources in any way? The not-so-low growl that emanates from eighteen pounds of wound-up muscle is undeniably forbidding. Should he go on the attack (which he is wont to do if any threat or challenge is allowed to escalate), the noises that emerge are horrorshow-worthy. Then there’s the breed-related bark to consider. Because sometimes he does this high-pitched thing that puts a Shiba inu’s scream to shame. It’s not pretty. Almost any French bulldog owner can attest to that.

 

But for all that, I’d never thought I’d hear him whine or whimper in pain. Why? Because most dogs don’t...no matter how much pain assails their neurons. This wild dog survival mechanism ensures that predators and competitors don’t catch wind of their weakness and exploit their disadvantage. Makes sense, right?

Problem is, pain is hard to assess in pets as a result. Because relatively few pets will vocalize their pain like Vincent clearly does, owners are less likely to recognize their pets’ behavior for what it is. Which means fewer pets will receive the care they need.

So what was up with Vincent to initiate this depressing expression of pain? Turns out his back hurts. Here’s another Frenchie with disc disease. Just like my last one (Sophie Sue). Just like so many of my French bulldog patients. It’s enough to make me want to scream in frustration. Or invest in my boyfriend’s surgical practice. Or both.

As its stands, I was lucky enough to be accompanied by a fellow vet as I walked in the door (I’m useless in the face of my own pets’ suffering). I was lucky enough to have stashed some Rimadyl and tramadol from 2009’s spinal tragedies. And Vincent was lucky to have experienced what now seems a relatively minor intervertebral disc disease event. Because after spending the last 36 hours cooped up in a recovery crate, Vincent’s acting the quiet, comfortable dog.

So now that I’ve seen what pain looks like in this particular patient, can I rest assured that no vocalization means relative freedom from discomfort? I guess so, but who really knows? Until pets learn to make themselves understood more effectively or we learn to better interpret their desires, the communication gap will continue to hamper our interpretation of their pain. Vocalization is just one of many tools we use to help accomplish that. 

Too bad Vincent’s expressions of woe arrived when they did. Timed as they were, I’ve had to wonder: Was this a harbinger of things to come for the year? Or just another sign that, much though we may try, some things are simply unavoidable.

 

PS: Fireworks, anyone? That's us in the middle-ground at the Biltmore in Coral Gables, FL just after midnight. 

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