Date:   23 August, 2008    
Focus: Small animals - dogs, cats, hamsters & rabbits.


BE KIND TO PETS Community Education Project supported by Toa Payoh Vets and Asia USA Realty. Written: Sep 11, 2003. Updated: Aug 23, 2008.
Dr Sing Kong Yuen, BVMS (Glasgow), MRCVS

Bringing veterinary medicine and surgery anatomy alive to a vet student studying in Australia

The Spitz bites the hand that feeds him

"It's time for my Spitz to meet his ancestors," Mr Tan said as a matter of fact. Mr Tan was one of those men who showed no hesitation in getting rid of a 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 sell 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 a newly graduated veterinary surgeon. 

Nowadays, I requested that Ken wait  outside the consultation room so that he does 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 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 the teenaged daughter of Ms Tan. Her 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 and had broken hearts of her the naughty boys in the boys' school across the road.

Now her patient said this dog was suffering from the canine version of the human Alzheimer's Disease and had to be put to sleep due to a change of behaviour to being aggressive. 

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?"

Ms Tan said softly, "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 diffused from the dog's mouth into the consultation room. I could smell it and 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 was most likely to be suffering from a severe tooth-ache in the right cheek. The pain must be excruciating and since the dog could not talk to ask for help, it had to bear the pain daily. He bit anybody who caused him more pain by patting his right cheek.  

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 Tan. So many more years of companionship. A companion who is always there for her when she comes home from a lot of school work.

Her father would not compromise the safety of his first son. He had eleven daughters in a row and God had finally given him 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 him 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 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.

I could understand why he needed to get rid of the old dog that might kill his only son. 

"From what your daughter said, the behaviour of your dog suggested that he bit on only his right side when 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 by Mr Tan if he was stingy.

"Two hundred dollars including the anaesthesia, antibiotics and dental scaling and extraction for your dog."

Ms Tan looked at her father for an answer. The father put his hand on his beard and nodded his head. "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.

Yet without the guarantee, this poor dog just had to be put down.

I looked at Ms Tan. Obviously she was in no position to decide or to pay. "OK," I said reluctantly.

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 down

This was a possibility. This was a "now or never" situation for this old friend of the daughters and wife.

I tranquilised it, put it under general anaesthesia. The right upper premolar tooth was loose. It had a thick tartar and red painful gum infection. Behind this 4th pre-molar was an exposed molar. Exposed root of the tooth. 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 after its loose teeth were extracted. "He enjoys eating his food much more and eats faster nowadays," Ms Tan told me.

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 daughters or the toddler and the solution was so simple. 

 Pictures of the older Spitz undergoing dental work
at Toa Payoh Vets
taken by Dr Sing in 2003

Left upper molar teeth decay
Dog under general anaesthesia. Tartar accumulated over the years and bacteria had destroyed the supporting structure of the teeth and inflaming the gums.
Right upper molar decays with tongue ulcer forming below it.
The right cheek teeth and gums were painful for this Spitz.
The molar behind the extracted one shows decay too
Ultra-sonic scaling of the teeth after extraction of the loose teeth.
Needs general anaesthesia to scale or extract canine teeth
Extraction of the loose teeth.
Decayed molar extracted. No more toothache
The right upper cheek tooth was removed. This was probably the most painful area and the cause of cause of biting.

Toa Payoh Vets