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Health and Behavior Concerns for Pet Owners Caring for Stray and Rescue Dogs
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 09/15/2017, edited: 09/17/2021
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There are many stray and homeless dogs and countless rescue agencies, shelters, and humane societies work tirelessly to rehome these dogs. Rescue agencies and adoptive pet parents that take in these unwanted pets sometimes have a challenge on their hands, addressing the many health concerns and behavioral issues that these dogs may be experiencing as a result of living on the street, in situations where their needs could not be met, or where they have suffered abuse.
Lack of medical care, poor diet, lack of preventive care such as vaccinations or antiparasitics, or injuries suffered due to dangerous living situations can have a profound effect on the health of dogs that require rehoming. In addition, dogs that have been living on the street or in poor living situations often lack training and may have developed behavioral issues from the stress of not having their needs adequately met, or due to abuse.
A stray or rescue dog can be a wonderful, loving pet and the rewards of providing a caring home for a dog that desperately needs one are innumerable. Remember that rescue dogs often need to have medical and behavioral conditions addressed, and resources in terms of time, finances, and patience are often required when providing a home for such dogs.
What should I look out for in my stray or rescue dog?
Dogs that have lived on the street or have been housed in shelters where they are exposed to other dogs may carry communicable diseases or parasites from their previous living situations. Medical conditions that are commonly seen in rescue and shelter dogs are:
- Kennel cough is a communicable disease caused by a combination of stress, bacteria, and viral factors--all of which are prevalent in rescue animals
- Matted coats from unsanitary conditions and lack of grooming may contribute to skin disorders
- Parasites such as fleas, ticks, and mange may require treatment with antiparasitics.
- Heartworm, which can be tested for prior to or shortly after adoption to address if present
- Leptospirosis and other serious bacterial infection requiring antibiotic treatment
- Yeast infections require antifungal treatment
- Gastrointestinal problems from parasites or changes in food can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
Additionally, stray dogs will often be suffering from malnourishment, both from lack of food and lack of nutrients due to poor diet. This often manifests in coat condition as well as poor body condition. Do not feed malnourished dogs large amounts of rich food right away, as this can subject them to problems like bloat. Instead, provide small quantities of food several times a day and provide bland food until their gastrointestinal system adjusts.
Intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms tapeworms, and whipworms may be present. A fecal sample can be taken and analyzed to determine if these parasites are present. Antiparasitics can be provided to deworm dogs with infections.
Communicable diseases that have not been vaccinated against in stray and rescue dogs can be present. If rabies is present, the dog will require euthanization. Distemper and parvovirus can be treated with supportive care, but can be serious and life-threatening.
Rescue organizations typically take care of health issues before they allow a dog to be rehomed.
Could my stray or rescue dog have behavioral problems?
In addition to health concerns, shelter, and rescue dogs may exhibit behavioral problems due to lack of training or stress they experienced. Behavioral problems may include the following.
Even a dog that comes from an environment where they were abused or neglected may experience stress due to being separated from their family of origin. In addition, once they have developed a relationship with you as their primary caregiver and formed an attachment, rescue dogs may be more emotionally dependent on you than a dog that did not experience deprivation. They are more subject to separation anxiety when you are absent. Reassuring your new addition by providing time and attention, play, exercise, and socialization will help them to overcome attachment issues. Providing your dog with a purpose or a job by engaging them in tasks and providing toys, will stimulate their mind and make them more resistant to anxiety conditions that can result from previous trauma or a drastic change in life circumstances.
Such dogs also thrive on routine; feeding and sleeping at the same time each day provides the dog with the reassurance that they can predict their environment, and that their needs will be met. Providing a safe place such as a crate that feels like a den can be beneficial. After all, this dog has probably come from a shelter or home where they felt unsafe, and experiencing some anxiety is to be expected. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be warranted until a routine has been established and your new family member has gained confidence in their new surroundings. Dogs that suffer from anxiety can be aggressive if they perceive a threat or may react with a flight response and run off, which can be dangerous if they run out into traffic or away from their new home.
Stray dogs that were homeless for any significant length of time, or dogs from a situation where normal toilet habits were not enforced, may not be properly house trained. These dogs not only require being taught what is expected in terms of where to “do their business” much like a new puppy would, but may also need to have established habits broken. For instance, if they came from a home where they eliminated in a certain area of the home without correction, this unwanted behavior will need to be counteracted, as well as new appropriate behavior reinforced and established. Patience on the part of new, adoptive pet parents is required, along with a significant investment of time, to retrain the dog and develop appropriate toilet habits. Taking the dog outside frequently and observing them carefully for signs that they need to relieve themselves is required. If the dog is still intact, marking behavior may be an issue, and neutering the dog may help mitigate this behavior.
Also, dogs that have come from abusive situations may urinate due to submissive nervous behavior. Addressing your dog's anxiety, and providing behavioral and emotional support so that they can control their urination, may be necessary. Using a commercial product to sanitize and remove the scent where a dog has marked may be helpful in addressing inappropriate elimination. Stray dogs may be territorial, so marking behaviors are not uncommon. Counteracting this behavior by carefully monitoring your dog and intervening as soon as leg lifting behavior manifests will help resolve the issue.
Dogs that did not receive adequate nutrition can be food aggressive or bolt their food, which can be dangerous for their gastrointestinal health. Care may need to be taken to introduce your new pet to appropriate feeding behavior by separating them and then slowly integrating them into eating with other pets present, discouraging aggression when eating, and making efforts to slow eating down with specialized feeding methods.
Rescue dogs may have been exposed to situations where they needed to defend themselves from other dogs or people, and can have aggressive behaviors. Be aware of this, and slowly and carefully introduce them to family members and other pets to gauge their reaction. Supervision and correction of aggressive behavior will be required for some time following integration into your home to be sure that aggression does not result in injury to yourself, family members, or other pets. They may need to work on socialization with people, other animals, and other dogs. Hopefully, the rescue agency or shelter will have done some assessment on socialization and aggressive behavior and can prepare you ahead of time if this may be an issue.
Vocalization or destructive, aggressive, or out-of-control behavior, may have been the reason the dog was surrendered to the shelter or required rehoming in the first place. If the dog’s family of origin did not have the time, experience, or resources to correct these behaviors, their new family may need to address them. Professional assistance and a significant investment of time and patience are required to ensure that old undesirable behaviors are replaced with new desirable habits and behavior. Sometimes, an experienced pet parent is the best adoptive family for a dog with such issues, or professional assistance from a trainer may be required.
How can I help my stray or rescue dog?
Dogs that find themselves in shelters, or at rescues, may have health problems due to poor breeding or may have health conditions that their original family could not deal with.
Remember when you are adopting a rescue animal you do not always know their history, their medical condition, or how they will behave or react in their new home. Pet parents should be aware that a rescue dog may have additional requirements in terms of veterinary care to address medical conditions, and may also have behavioral problems that will need addressing. Time, patience, training and behavior modification techniques are often required to address anxiety and unwanted behaviors.
Not only can health and behavior problems follow shelter dogs from their previous life situation, but their temporary residence in a shelter may contribute to or cause health and behavioral issues that will need addressing as kennels can be stressful and communicable diseases may be present. Most shelters will test dogs for aggression, socialization, and other behavioral problems and screen for health problems before making them available for adoption, and can inform prospective pet parents so they can make an informed decision as to whether they have the resources to handle the dog's issues. It is important to ask questions and consider the dog’s needs and whether you can meet them before adopting a rescue dog.
Tips to help your new furry buddy are:
- Calm anxiety by leaving for a very few minutes and coming back, gradually extending the time you are away
- Give your dog a safe chew toy stuffed with a healthy treat like dog-safe peanut butter to occupy them when you are out
- Leave classical music playing on the radio
- Reward your dog's good behavior
- Do not punish your dog with loud speech or threatening actions
- Provide a crate that your dog can go into at leisure, giving them a quiet place
- Feed your dog on a schedule so they learn there is no shortage of food
- Once you get to know your dog, take them to obedience classes (many dogs thrive on structure and a job to do)
Patience, training, and care will usually be required to resolve unwanted behaviors, and providing medical care to relieve parasitic or other infections and injuries will restore your new adopted family member to health.