Adverse Vaccine Reaction and Behavioral Changes in Dogs

I’m doing my best to share the whole picture of what exactly went wrong in Lilly’s body and brain following her adverse reaction to a rabies vaccine nearly 2 months ago. My dog training / dog behavior friends will find this VERY interesting.

One of the things Lilly lost along the way — entirely for a while and now spotty? Canine calming signals. For example, typically when you kiss a dog (even one who is used to it), the dog will lick its lips as a way of saying, “I don’t like that” or “You’re making me nervous.” Calming signals can also be used to prevent altercations between dogs. For weeks and weeks and weeks, Lilly did not do that … at all.

Not a big deal to us, but to Ginko? Kind of a big deal.

Combine missing calming signals between dogs with her lifelong behavioral challenges and now poor body control, and you get a tense canine household.

When Lilly developed meningoencephalomyelitis (inflammation of the brain and lining of the brain and spinal cord) after getting a three-year rabies vaccine, all sorts of bad things happened — medical and otherwise.

Once we got past the life-and-death phase of this veterinary emergency … and past the brutal side-effects of treatment … what emerged were some difficult behavior issues.

Lilly has always enjoyed sassing Ginko. She likes to herd him, and he has almost always been sweet enough to heed her warnings or turn away from her bossy noises, faces, and body postures.

Sure, once in a while, he would get fed up and issue a verbal or physical correction, but that’s it.

best dog blog, champion of my heart, two dogs negotiating who gets the dog bed

Example: Ginko is politely trying to get Lilly to give up the bed here. Normally, he stands there. She gets up. He gets the bed. Done. But, on this day, Lilly is completely clueless and never does give up the bed.

Well, with Lilly NOT reliably throwing calming signals (combined with all the stress in the house and Ginko’s own medical issues), things have been tense between the two of them.

Weeks ago, I emailed Debbie Jacobs, fellow fearful dog blogger and author of Guide to Living With and Training A Fearful Dog, and I asked if she knew WHERE in the brain calming signals originate. My theory, you see, was that the spot where calming signals start must have been affected by the rampant inflammation in Lilly’s brain.

Debbie offered another theory … maybe Lilly was simply slow in her cognition to be able to:

  • Read interactions with us and Ginko properly
  • Offer an appropriate behavioral response

The result?

Lilly often growled, curled her lips, and charged at Ginko without offering any indications that she really did NOT mean it. In other words, no canine calming signals mitigated her other actions.

And, since Lilly still sometimes has poor control of her body, she often jumped onto Ginko, slid into Ginko, or fell onto Ginko accidentally.

He was NONE too happy with her behavior or the fact that the cold, winter weather makes his “bad” knees hurt.

Over the course of a couple weeks, Lilly and Ginko got into tussles.

The worse one lasted maybe 5 seconds, tops, but if felt like forever with him growling and snapping and Lilly screaming. She pinched his leg. He pinched her head. Neither broke the skin, but both had a lump or two for a day.

best dog blog, champion of my heart, closeup of border collie's eye

Can you see the slight swelling above Lilly's eye?

As a result, we instituted strict dog management protocols at certain times of the day when they are more likely to disagree about something. For example:

  • Bring Lilly upstairs from her crate .
  • Take her outside to pee.
  • Let Lilly go kiss Tom in bed.
  • Put Lilly into her upstairs crate.
  • Go back downstairs for Ginko.
  • Take Ginko out to pee.
  • Feed him in the kitchen.
  • Feed Lilly in her crate.
  • Take Ginko outside to poop.
  • Put Ginko in the basement.
  • Take Lilly out to poop.
  • Put Lilly in bed with Tom and close the bedroom door.
  • Let Ginko out of the basement.

And, that’s just the breakfast routine … keeping in mind that whichever one isn’t on deck is barking.

It’s a bit like living inside one of those sliding puzzles, where only one puzzle piece can move at one time.

It’s exhausting.

BUT, I’m happy to say that we haven’t had an incident of conflict for many, many days. So, either Lilly is doing a better job letting Ginko know her real intent, or we’re doing a better job refereeing. 

The strange thing is that Ginko often lets Lilly lean on him when she wobbles. She kisses him. He kisses her. They play together. They share the sofa. They truly are friends, but the combination of Lilly’s longstanding bossiness with these new neurological / behavioral challenges don’t make that an easy partnership right now.



Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Hawk aka BrownDog - March 9, 2012

Hi Y’all,

Just to let y’all know that we are still keeping up with Lilly’s progress. Our paws are still crossed.

Hawk aka BrownDog

Jen - March 9, 2012

I’m glad that Ginko and Lilly can still interact…sometimes. They must both be very confused! He’s all “this normally works” and she’s thinking “he’d better stop bothering me.”

In humans, certainly, brain injuries can affect behavior and cognition. I’m not sure where the “social cues” area of the brain is (perhaps reading about the “autism detection” that they’ve developed for children as young as 6 months might help? I don’t know if that’s a brain scan or not), but I do know that frontal lobe damage can affect thing like planning, organized thinking, and short term memory.

melF - March 9, 2012

This kind of made me sad. It’s so sad to think that there is tension between them because of what happened to Lilly. I think Debbie may be on to something with the slow reaction times. I noticed that with Indy after her reaction to the rabies vaccine too.

Sounds like you are managing really well, but I hope you won’t have to do so soon. I love that Ginko understands that sometimes Lilly needs to lean on him. That’s a family.

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