Ethology and veterinary practice: Canine and feline sexual politics
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Even though practitioners readily acknowledge that gonads aren't the only source of male and female hormones in the animal body, the belief persists that spaying and neutering eliminates sexual behaviors. Even if practitioners don't necessarily believe this, they may not be able to convince their clients otherwise.
This matters for several reasons.
First, it's not true. As a physiologist friend put it, "You removed their gonads, not their brains."
Second, if veterinarians don't acknowledge that something exists or could exist, they can't address any problems that may arise as a consequence of its presence. Sad to say, I didn't routinely start asking my clients about sexual behaviors in their cats and dogs until I'd moved into behavior/bond practice.
To date, I estimate 20-25 percent of them say their animals do display such behaviors. Masturbation heads the list, but others also occur. In retrospect, this shouldn't have surprised me because testosterone is one of the primary stress hormones in males and females, and many of these animals experience stress in their home environments.
Simultaneously, unless asked about sexual displays as part of the routine history, clients who may want to bring up some concern related to these may hesitate to do so. Some wrongly may assume the practitioner's failure to raise the subject means any concerns related to it are unwarranted.
Embarrassment may override others' concern about their animal's well-being. Still others may believe their concerns are legitimate, but they worry they may offend the veterinarian — or worse — if they mention these.
This brings us to yet another reason why acceptance that some spayed and neutered animals may display sexual behaviors for legitimate reasons should matter to practitioners. There are some within the bond and animal law communities who erroneously equate all evidence of trauma to the animal penis, sheath, vulva and vagina with bestiality.
They do not know, as many farmers do, that it's fairly common for stressed young animals to suck on their own genitalia or that of other animals to comfort themselves. They do not know that stressed dogs and cats may do the same.
Male dogs also will grab the ends of their penises with their teeth when they masturbate. Males and females of both species will masturbate using a wide range of substrates; some of these are capable of causing tissue damage. If the owners punish the animals, the fear of being caught and punished may cause some animals to suck, tug or rub harder, thereby increasing the likelihood of injury.
Lacking this knowledge, these folks and any similarly naive veterinarians could erroneously accuse an innocent person of a crime many consider the most heinous of them all.
At this point, you may be thinking that this is a strictly behavioral issue that has nothing to do with your medical practice. But permit me to share a case that may change your mind about the inextricable link between animal health, behavior and the bond. As always, identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
I saw Ms. Sanborn and her 2-year-old spayed basset hound, Lavinia, because of the dog's increasing aggression.
Background information included that Ms. Sanborn's home and its furnishings meant a great deal to her, and that she was a highly reactive and anxious person. Consequently, when she got Lavinia as a puppy, she became obsessed with house-training.
In addition to taking the puppy out every hour, she also hung a bell on the doorknob and lavishly praised the dog and took her out whenever Lavinia rang it. Any urine or stool deposited outdoors also earned the dog lavish praise and treats.
As sometimes occurs in such cases, Lavinia quickly learned to ring the bell whenever she wanted to go outside for any reason. She also learned that even the smallest amount of urine or stool made her owner happy.
However, as Lavinia matured, those reasons to go outside and urinate multiple times for fun and treats had less to do with any need to eliminate and more to do with marking her territory.
Medically, Lavinia had a long history of recurrent UTIs, vaginitis and peri-vulvar dermatitis. Ultimately, her recessed vulva (the persistence of which may be linked to preadult spaying) was deemed the culprit, and she had surgery to correct it.
But long after the area had healed, the dog continued to rub herself on a heavy braided rug in the owner's home and to succumb to periodic, nonspecific UTIs and vaginitis. Soon, Lavinia began ignoring her owner's attempts to stop her from doing this. She began growling and snapping at Ms. Sanborn instead. Eventually, Lavinia would growl and snap whenever the owner tried to get Lavinia to stop doing anything the dog didn't want to do.
What Ms. Sanborn never mentioned to her veterinarian during all this time was that Lavinia was masturbating, and that this behavior began a few months before her medical problems did. The owner didn't mention it because, as I discovered, the only thing Ms. Sanborn found more repugnant than canine urine and stool in her home, was the thought of her dog masturbating there.
Additionally, Lavinia apparently committed the worst sin of them all: She masturbated on an heirloom rug the owner inherited from her grandmother. Because of this, even when I raised this possibility and found the owner an excellent source of information about the dog's behavior, she provided it grudgingly and continued to refer to the behavior as "you know." Then there was the coup de grâce: She asked me not to tell her veterinarian about Lavinia's "you know."
The worst part of this for me personally was realizing that I also had overlooked this behavioral possibility when I was in veterinary medical practice.
The above case serves as a reminder that spayed and neutered dogs and cats can and do display sexual behaviors. Moreover, sometimes these can contribute to medical problems directly or indirectly.
By normalizing this reality and incorporating it into the history-gathering process, practitioners increase the probability that clients will mention these behaviors should they occur. Doing so also will prevent clinicians from jumping to conclusions that may do more harm than good.
In closing and for those who want to know how this case turned out, although the owner lacked the bond with and commitment to Lavinia to address the dog's problems, she did have a friend who possessed both who was willing to take her. The move to that more relaxed physical and mental environment eliminated much of the stimulus that was fueling Lavinia's stress-relieving masturbation and aggression.
And the owner's commitment to the dog soon took care of the rest. Thus, at least for this human-animal pair, it had a happy ending.
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