There are a number of different behavioural issues pet owners can face with their four legged family members, and several are not uncommon. Some require the attention of a qualified animal behaviourist, but in many instances your vet can help.
Animals’ behaviour is learned, and past experiences will have taught your pet how to behave in particular situations. Having the skills to teach your pet to behave differently will help you to address issues, and improve your pet’s behaviour. Addressing behaviour problems sooner rather than later will generally make the transition easier and simpler for both you and your pet. Following are some tips on how to deal with some of the more common animal behaviours, and they focus on the two most common pets, dogs and cats.
One of the most common issues people have with dogs is barking. Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that barking is a standard form of communication for dogs, and they use barking as a way to communicate with each other as well as with us. They bark when feeling threatened and fearful, defending their territory, playing, and simply to get attention. Barking is a common problem and has the potential to drive your neighbours crazy, therefore understanding why a dog is barking is the first step in addressing problem barking. We can help you to work out what is causing your dog to bark, and what can be done to address problem barking.
A task that most owners of young animals face at some stage is toilet training, however toilet behaviour shouldn’t necessarily be an issue and if it is, it may be because training routines have been insufficient or inconsistent. If an issue arises with pets whose toileting habits were previously under control, it could indicate an underlying issue. Dogs and cats that urinate and defecate in inappropriate places could have a behavioural issue such as anxiety or fear. Remember that animals are not vindictive and this behaviour is not done spitefully, therefore animals should never be punished for toileting in the wrong place. Incontinence and diarrhoea can be signs of a medical issue, and these must be ruled out before focussing on behavioural training.
Destructive behaviour can be caused by a number of things but it’s not a sign that your dog is trying to cause trouble. Rather, it is a sign of an issue such as fear or anxiety, and sometimes it can result from boredom. Dogs need exercise and to be stimulated, and the destructive behaviour could be a symptom of inactivity. In many cases destructive behaviour can be addressed with training and conditioning, but in some cases it is necessary for dogs to undergo a program of behavioural management with an expert. On occasions medication is necessary.
Aggression is frequently cited by animal owners as an issue, but it is in fact a normal behaviour under certain circumstances. Understanding aggressive behaviour starts with identifying towards whom your dog is aggressive, and it’s not uncommon or necessarily unreasonable for dogs to behave aggressively towards some unfamiliar people. Aggression towards unfamiliar dogs can also be normal. Problematic aggression is when it’s directed at family members or other household pets. Different forms of aggression require different treatment, and aggression includes a range of behaviours that usually start as a warning sign but can sometimes lead to an attack. Remember that dogs seldom bite without prior warning.
Medical conditions can cause aggression and acute pain can be one of them. Diet is also a potential contributing factor. Seek the advice of your vet if your dog is aggressive so that they can check for medical issues and provide advice on the best way forward.
Some dogs are naturally boisterous and can consequently be a problem. Mental stimulation is very important for most dogs and for some it will be the deciding factor in whether a dog is boisterous or not, and breed often plays a role. Sometimes it’s due to inadequate training, and sometimes it can be caused by neurochemistry (chemistry of the nervous system). To determine what’s causing it in your dog, check with your vet who can conduct a thorough assessment.
Behavioural issues with cats are, not surprisingly, quite different from dogs, and common issues include scratching, hunting, and spraying on home furnishings. Spraying is one of the most common problems and it’s done intentionally but not maliciously. Spraying and eliminating may be a sign that a litter tray is unclean or not fit for purpose. Size, location and substrate used in the tray will all be relevant and preferences can vary from cat to cat.
Cats that spray and eliminate around the home are often anxious or fearful, and it is an issue that is generally linked to their environment. The causes of this behaviour are something your vet can help identify.
Hunting is behaviour that is synonymous with cats. It is completely normal and the only way to prevent it is to keep your cat confined. Most cat owners will be familiar with the graveyard of insects and other helpless animals that their cat has dragged into the home overnight, and some of the best distractions from their predatory habits are toys, games and the company of another cat. Even these however, will not counteract your cat’s natural instinct to hunt. Minimising the opportunity for kittens to hunt may help to curb the behaviour as they become adults, but early intervention is necessary and it’s impossible to stop all together.
Cats are naturally cautious and their behaviour may sometimes appear to be due to shyness or fear. This is usually normal and cats will be naturally wary of strangers. They therefore should be allowed to take refuge in a safe hiding spot if they so choose. Once they have developed a level of familiarity and comfort they are generally more social, but if they appear to be more withdrawn than usual, a trip the the vet is advisable as it could be an early sign of illness.
Another natural cat behaviour that can lead to frustration for their owners is scratching. Whilst ruined, clawed furniture and carpet can reduce cat owners to tears, the culprits can’t understand what all the fuss is about as they are merely following their natural instincts. Cats scratch for a variety of reasons, including to stretch and flex their paws, to mark their territory, and to remove redundant layers of their claws. Cats have glands on their paws that allows them to mark surfaces with their scent. Scratching posts may provide some relief to your furnishings, but it’s impossible to eliminate scratching all together as it is an instinctive and normal behaviour.
Some cats are naturally more vocal than others and one of their forms of communication is yowling. It can be common at night and in the early morning and it is one of their methods to communicate with each other, as are hissing and growling. Cats reserve meowing for their communication with people.
Crying at night sometimes occurs as a result of hunger. Alternatively, a crying cat may be defending its territory or it may simply be seeking attention. If yowling and crying is occurring regularly it’s important to understand why. Illness can lead to excessive vocalisation and stressed cats often become more vocal too. Also, just like us, cats can suffer from confusion as they age due to disorientation and can often cry plaintively for no apparent reason. There are medications that can help if your cat becomes disoriented at night, and if your cat is exhibiting any unusual behaviour it’s advisable to get them checked by a vet.
Don’t take any chances with your pet’s well-being. If you have any concerns about their behaviour take them to your vet so they can be checked for underlying medical issues. Your vet will work with you to determine the best plan of treatment, which may include behavioural training. Any of the Vets4Pets hospitals can assist, and we can also refer you to animal behaviourists if necessary.