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what every owner should know about pet behaviour

Note: any changes in diet, routine, exercise or environment should be discussed with your veterinarian to ensure they are appropriate for your pet and his/her unique health needs

Problem behaviour is a very common cause of euthanasia and/or relinquishment to shelters. More pets are euthanized due to behavioural problems than any medical problem. Most issues are avoidable and pets can be rehabilitated. The prognosis for good control and long term management of the issue is greatly improved with behaviours that have just started vs. ones that have been occurring for a long time. Many owners ignore problems or work around problems and this may decrease the quality of life of the pet. We need to be more proactive and approach behavioural problems the same as we do preventable diseases. Let’s make our pets happier and healthier!

Tips on preventing behaviour problems:

  • Early socialization is a must: This should start at the breeders and the breeder should be able to explain all the things that they exposed the puppies or kittens to. This should continue at home with positive based training classes, exposure to new people and places, car rides, socialization with other dogs/cats. If your dog or cat is showing fear in any situation, get advice on dealing with this at your vaccination appointment.
  • Good nutrition: Avoid high protein foods in dogs. Avoid high carbohydrate (dry foods) in cats. If you notice a change in temperament within a few months of starting a new food then consider a food change. Food allergies can be correlated with behavioural issues and hypoallergenic food trials can be considered. Discuss with your veterinarian.
  • Adequate Exercise and Play: Bored dogs that are under exercised and lack mental stimulation often look for trouble. Cats who aren’t getting enough exercise and mental stimulation are prone to stress related behavioural problems. Exercise for dogs should include leash walking, play time, and socialization with other dogs. For cats, interactive play sessions in 3-5 minute periods 2 -3 times/day and lots of perches, scratching posts and hiding places are a must. See “What a Cat Needs to Promote Mental Health”.
  • Leadership Training: The pet should have to sit before receiving food, attention, affection, play time, leash, going outside, etc. Cats can be taught the same as dogs although it may be a little more difficult. Clicker training works well in cats and is super fun! Leadership Training will help your pet see you as the leader and promote good behaviour. See “Leadership Training” article.
  • You get what you reward! So if your pet is frightened or anxious and you pet and cuddle the pet, the anxiety will worsen. Ignore anxious pets and/or try to get them to focus on something else. You could ask for a sit, send them to get a favourite toy, play their favourite game. Remember that if a pet is attention seeking, punishment (such as yelling at a barking dog), will reward the behaviour and increase the frequency. Redirect or ignore bad behaviours and reward good behaviours (i.e. reward the pet when it isn’t barking).
  • Reward your pet for calm behaviour: When your pet is resting or relaxing, consider petting and or massaging the pet gently. Eventually you can give a down and relax cue and your pet will be quite happy. Some cats may get over aroused with petting so this is not a good technique for them. Instead, give a small scratch or chin rub and a favoured treat.
  • Decide what behaviours will be acceptable when the pet is all grown up: A cute little kitty nibble as a baby can turn into a full out bite with puncture wounds when this cat is an adult. For this reason, never play with your hands or feet and encourage the cat to attack or bite it. Use toys on sticks or strings for that type of play (interactive play sessions). A puppy that jumps on people seems cute but when the pet is an adult if he/she scratches or pushes someone over it won’t be that cute. Set consistent rules about what is acceptable behaviour in a kind and positive way and consider what each behaviour will look like when the pet is an adult. Your leadership training will help you to set up a default behaviour like a sit!
  • Don’t use force or physical punishment: Physical punishment has been shown to decrease dog obedience scores and cause aggression issues. It can also make a shy dog more anxious. Look for positive trainers that do not use choke chains or pinch collars and that make the obedience classes into fun games that your pet loves. You’ll enjoy it more and your pet will learn to be happy and well behaved. Although I haven’t seen studies in cats, I feel the same principles apply.
  • If you notice problem behaviours seek help early: Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviourist or a trainer that is well respected and using positive methods. When a problem starts it is often a response to an understandable situation. For example, a child corners a dog and pulls the dog’s ear causing the dog to bite the child. If this situation is allowed to recur, the dog will often learn that biting works and will become more viscous and when the child runs away the dog’s behaviour is rewarded. Then you are dealing with both the fear component of the behaviour and the learned component of the behaviour (i.e. it becomes a habit) making rehabilitation more difficult!
  • Children and pets should always have supervision: Young children can be taught at an early age not to hurt pets. Pets can be taught at an early age to either get away from children or tolerate them. Even with well trained pets, children and pets should not be left unsupervised. I firmly believe that children learn by example so if you set a good example of how to handle your pet your child will learn quickly.

Wishing you and your pet the best. Thanks for your interest in my website.

Dr. Liana Mawer