tpvets_logo.jpg (2726 bytes)TOA PAYOH VETS PTE LTD  

Blk 1002, Toa Payoh Lor 8, 01-1477, Singapore 319074Tel: +65 6254-3326, 9668-6468, 9664-0404.
Focus: Small animals - dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, pet rats and mice, birds and turtles      
Case presented in 2003

October 01, 2020 

Dr Sing Kong Yuen, BVMS (Glasgow)

"It's time for my Spitz to meet his ancestors," Mr Tan said as a matter of fact. He was one of those men who showed no hesitation in getting rid of his dog that bites the hand that feeds him.  "For the past weeks, he bit whenever my children touched his face. He is already 56 years old since one dog year equals to seven human years. He must be suffering from Alzheimer's Disease by being so vicious."

Groomer Ken who transported the Spitz to Toa Payoh Vets interrupted, "
Alzheimer's Disease is a progressive, degenerative and always fatal disease that attacks the brain of people. It gradually strips a person of mental and physical capabilities and renders him or her totally incapable of caring for himself or herself.

Groomer Ken reads widely and loves to share his knowledge. He continued, "Your dog does not suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. He can still recognise the family members. That means his brain is functioning normally."  With over twenty five years of experience in dogs, Ken felt that he could diagnose as well if not better than any newly graduated veterinary surgeon. 

Nowadays, I requested that Ken to wait outside the consultation room so that he would not confuse the dog owner with his advices. Many owners thought he was a veterinarian as his stature, broad shoulders and kind eyes behind gold-wired spectacles and ability to connect with people inspired confidence in pet owners.    

Mrs Tan said, "The Spitz looks quite normal, but his behaviour had changed since he came back from the boarding kennel.  He coughed a lot too. Could he have contacted rabies - the viral disease which make a dog go mad and bite people and any creature around him?"

"Singapore does not have rabies for at least thirty years," I replied. "As your dog has not been out of Singapore, he would not have contacted rabies.

"As for coughing, he could have contacted kennel cough at the boarding kennel as Singapore dogs are seldom vaccinated against the kennel cough. This is a bacterial and viral infection of the upper airways. Usually the dog will recover. Was he vaccinated against kennel cough before going to the kennels?"

Mrs Tan said, "He has his yearly vaccination. Now, I am more worried that he will bite my newborn son."

The old dog had to be put to sleep so that the baby would be safe. That was the crux of the matter.

Was there another option? I looked at Grace, the 16-year-old daughter. Her red eyes were swollen as silent tears dripped down from the lower eyelids. Her parents had made a "wise" decision.

But today was the end of a good friend who had grown up with her. Who had kept her company while she studied hard. She confided to him when the naughty boys in the boys' school across the road broke her heart.

Now her parents diagnosed her companion as suffering from the canine version of the human Alzheimer's Disease and had to be put to sleep due to a change of behaviour - aggressiveness. 

I needed more information on the dog's history as I examined this dog. "Will the Spitz bite if you don't pat his face and which side would cause him to bite?"

Grace spoke as if whispering a secret to a close friend, "He bites only when I pat his right cheek."

Definitely, this was no case of dementia commonly seen in Alzheimer's Disease. This was not a case of the dog going senile and biting his owners indiscriminately. 

A strong whiff of bad breath wafted from the dog's mouth into the consultation room. An offensive stench  that I was familiar as a vet. It was quite characteristic of severe periodontal disease.

Most dog owners live with bad breath of their older dogs. Their nostrils had been sensitised and they don't smell the bad breath at all. 

"This Spitz is most likely to be suffering from a severe tooth-ache in the right cheek," I explained to the parents. "The pain must be excruciating and since the dog could not talk to ask for help, he had to bear the pain daily. He bites anybody who caused him more pain by patting his right cheek!"

"Really? How do you know?" Mr Tan pointed his finger at me.   

Now, what could I do to confirm my tentative diagnosis? It would be foolish for me to open the Spitz's mouth as I had been fore-warned about his biting. 

Today would be the dog's last day on earth.  A bright blue sky with golden sunshine would be a sad day for Ms Grace Tan. 8 years of companionship. A companion who is always there for her when she comes home from a lot of school work and extra curricular activities. 

But her father would not compromise the safety of his first son. He had eleven daughters in a row and thank God, he now has a son. It took many years for his wife to produce him a male heir to perpetuate his surname. And this old biting dog may kill the child or infect him with rabies. 

The Singapore Government's policy of "Stop At Two" with its financial incentives in the 1980s had not any effect on him.  He was not interested in reversing the national population decline. He wanted a male heir and now he was a proud father of one toddler. 

A father at the age of fifty-five.  He had no receding fore head but he had a full crop of silvery hair which commanded respect of a man. It made him look like one who had lived long and had lots of experiences in his roof-repair and leaking trade.  The only disadvantage was that strangers would say to him when they see him with his son, "What a handsome grand-son you have!"  He would have some explanation to do and that was why now he had dyed his hair black. Makes him look younger than a man of his generation but no more mistaken identity as a grandfather.

I could understand why he needed to get rid of the old dog. Aggressive dogs may kill toddlers by biting on their jugular vein in the neck.  

"From what Ms Grace had observed," I said. "The Spitz bite only when his right side is patted. Therefore, I am very sure that he has a bad toothache and bites to prevent painful contact from anyone."

"Does he go around the house biting your son?" I asked.

"No," the parents shook their head.

"In this case, removal of his loose or bad teeth will stop him biting anybody." 

Ms Tan looked quite relieved that her dog had a reprieve.

Her father said, "How much it costs to treat his teeth?"

The cost of treatment would be considered prohibitive if he was stingy. Some men of his generation had grown up deprived and hungry in an undeveloped Singapore in the 1950s.

"Two hundred dollars including the anaesthesia, antibiotics and dental scaling and extraction for your dog." This was the year 2003 and $200 is worth more than the $250 I charge in 2020.

Ms Tan turned her head towards her father as one would plead to the heavens for help. Her father fingered his white beard trimmed short. He nodded his head and looked at me with determined eyes, "If you guarantee that the dog will not bite after dental work, I will pay the $200!" 

No vets should guarantee anything because this dog could have developed an aggressive behaviour for some time and would be incorrigible.

Yet without the guarantee, this Japanese Spitz would be euthanased. 

I looked at Ms Tan. Obviously she was in no position to decide or to pay. Tears streamed down her face. She was the typical Singaporean teenager - reserved and not speaking up for her dog as her father was the domineering patriarch, as in many Chinese families during this period of time.
"OK," I replied. "I will say there is a high probability that this Spitz would stop biting from the right side of the mouth after dental work."

Now, how should I proceed?  Should I prescribe antibiotics for the next seven days and then do the dental treatment? This would be ideal as the antibiotics would get rid of most of the mouth bacteria before dental treatment.  During dental treatment, the bacteria would be disturbed and spread via the blood stream to other parts of the body.

But would the dog be put to sleep at another clinic since I had not resolved the biting problem on the spot. 

One snap of the toddler who tried to play with this dog and that would triggered Mr Tan's anger. He would  over-ride his children and wife's wishes to let the dog live to a ripe old age by going to another veterinarian to put the dog to sleep by lethal injection. This was a high probability with bread-winner patriarchs. This was a "now or never" situation for this old friend of the daughter and wife. The family left while I got to work.

I tranquilised the Spitz, put it under general anaesthesia using isoflurane gas and oxygen. The right upper premolar tooth was loose. It had a thick tartar coating. The painful gum infection showed as red bleeding areas. Behind this 4th pre-molar was a molar with an exposed root. This would be quite painful. I wondered how this Spitz could tolerate the pain for so long. There were other teeth with thick tartar. Loose ones were removed while the good ones were scaled and polished.

What happened after the dental work? I phoned up 2 weeks later. The dog did not bite anybody. "He enjoys eating his food much more and eats faster nowadays," Grace spoke with a voice that was relieved and joyful.

It was kind of the family to consult a veterinary surgeon. Some owners would just get the transport man to send the dog to the surgery to be put to sleep.

After all, the penalty for biting the hand that feeds him is death by lethal injection. No compromise when it comes to a toddler's safety. Yet, there are sound reasons why an old dog would bite the hand that feeds him. In this case, it was just to protect himself from being painfully patted by the daughter or the toddler. The solution was so simple and effective and a life is saved from death by lethal injection.

The right cheek teeth and gums were painful for this Spitz.
The right upper cheek tooth was removed. This was the cause of biting. No more biting during patting of the face, after extraction of this tooth.
Dog under general anaesthesia. Tartar accumulated over the years and bacteria had destroyed the supporting structure of the teeth and inflaming the gums.

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