Top California Veterinarian, Director, The Paw Project

Q&A about personal pets and concerns about endangered species, etc.

Prevention of behavior problems

Animals behave like animals. This can be endearing, like when kittens turn sideways and attack each other in a “crab dance,� or when puppies roughhouse with each other. But animals behaving like animals may, in some instances, be considered a behavior problem. In these circumstances, humans can use some ingenuity to change or redirect the “problem� behaviors. With a little patience and love coming from both sides, animals and humans can coexist without anybody being unhappy about anybody else's behavior.


Normal behaviors


Animals bark, purr, run, knead, jump, and play. They chew and eat and they poo and pee. Cats stretch and scratch. Dogs retrieve balls and wag their tails. Understanding these natural behaviors is the key to understanding problem behaviors. A dog might bark to warn of danger, a coveted behavior, but what can be done to curb the barking of a bored dog?


The first step in addressing problem behaviors is to understand that no animal ever has a malicious intent in exhibiting a behavior. Your new puppy didn't select your new loafers to chew on to spite you because they were your favorites. You kitten didn't select your new sofa to scratch on because she's got it out for you. With this in mind, the next steps will be easier.


Remember, chewing and scratching are normal behaviors and part of what it means to share your home with an animal. Puppies who are chewing on your new shoes are really just looking for something appropriate to chew on and found your shoes before finding the chew toys. Kittens who are clawing up the couch have selected this piece of furniture as a good scratching post possibly because no other was available at the time. With this in mind, you can begin to see how you and your efforts play a decisive role in your companion animals behaviors.


Redirecting behaviors for desired outcomes


Puppies are born chewers. He's only a baby, and you’re an adult, so hide the shoes and bring out the chew toys. If you provide the toys he likes, your shoes won’t be interesting.


Cats are born scratchers. If your kitty is scratching your soft furniture, try offering her corrugated cardboard scratchers. If your cat likes the carpet, try a carpet scratching post. If she likes to scratch on wood, try a post with both wood and rope. Sometimes it is a matter of trial and error, but it is well worth the effort to find what your animal’s specific needs are. Don’t fell bad about the investment in the toys and scratching posts. If your animal is not happy with the product, take it back or donate it to a rescue organization. The animals there will be happy to have it.


Reward good behaviors with your lavish attention and praise.


Be careful not to punish animals. You might think you’re scolding your cat for pottying in the house, but he might think you’re scolding him for pottying. That can have a disastrous outcome! I have known of cats who became so anxious about peeing that they had bladder and urinary tract problems for the rest of their lives.


Never seek a surgical remedy for a behavior problem That idea went out with lobotomy! Surgically declawing a cat is a grave mistake made by many who are looking for a quick fix. By declawing a cat (in reality amputating the cat’s toes at the most distal joint) you might think you are addressing the scatching problem but you must believe that you are asking for it. By declawing, you are bringing on far worse problems like biting and litterbox avoidance.


By “debarking� a dog, you might have a quieter back yard, but your veterinarian has surgically cut your dog’s vocal cords. This often leads to scarring and even obstruction of the opening of the wind pipe or trachea. A debarked dog cannot alert anyone to where he is, nor can he protect himself. Debarking a dog is like dismantling the horn in your car, sure you don’t want to hear it all the time, but when you need your horn, you’re sure glad you have it!


Exercise is imperative

When dealing with animals with anxiety, it is very important that they get their exercise. No animal should be without it. I recommend that dogs who are licking their own skin raw because of separation anxiety be taken on a minimum of two walks a day for an hour or more each. This also helps when dogs are aggressive. Make sure that your dog, who has a pack-animal mentality, knows that you are the leader of the pack, the alpha-dog, and that he can relax in the ranks. Don’t let your dog lead you on walks, always lead him. Don’t feed him before you eat, feed him after. He knows he’ll get his food, but by having to wait, he learns that you are in charge and that he doesn’t need to worry.

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