By Leslie Sinclair, D.V.M.
She was only the third caller, but her question was quite familiar to me. I am frequently a guest on call-in radio shows, dispensing information about veterinary care for companion animals. Many callers are looking for a different type of information, however, and this pet owner was one of them. After describing her kitten's early morning shenanigans, which routinely resulted in broken items throughout the house and cranky family members, the caller asked: "Doctor, why does she do that?"
Pet owners frequently call with tales of house soiling, aggression, destructiveness, barking, and excessive meowing and lament their failure to deal with these undesirable pet behaviors. While their concerns may not seem as serious as the medical disorders described by other pet owners who call, they may actually be more serious. In a society that typically disposes of anything that "doesn't work," dogs and cats who display undesirable behaviors are often relinquished by their owners to animal shelters. Because few prospective pet owners seek to adopt a pet with a known behavior problem, these animals are often euthanized. Given that an estimated four to six million companion animals are euthanized by animal shelters annually, undesirable behavior in companion animals is perhaps the most deadly disease of all.
We seem to be able to share many thoughts and emotions with our companion animals. They live with us, play with us, console us, and respond appropriately when we ask them, "Ready for a walk?" It's hard for us to understand why they don't always understand what we expect of them, and it may be just as difficult for us to understand their needs. The dog who digs up his owner's yard can't comprehend the amount of time and expense that went into the landscaping and rosebushes. But it may also be true that his owner doesn't appreciate a dog's need to exercise and interact socially with other dogs or with human companions. Denied social opportunities, the dog may decide that landscape destruction is an amusing way to keep himself occupied. A dog who gets plenty of exercise and companionship and is given his own special part of the yard to dig in will no longer wreak havoc on the landscape.
Tolerance is also an essential element of a human-companion animal relationship. No relationship is perfect, but a successful relationship is one in which the dog owner understands and accepts the fact that dogs will be dogs and will have an innate need to do all of the things that dogs do. Cats will undoubtedly feel the need to exhibit feline behavior, and their human companions must be committed to understanding and accepting that behavior if the relationship is to succeed. Cats scratch. It's a fact of cat life. Scratching allows a cat to stretch and exercise, to mark her home with her own scent, and to shed overgrown nails. Some cat owners attempt to eliminate this innate behavior by removing their cats' claws, and many are surprised to find that a declawed cat will continue to "scratch" and that some declawed cats are still able to damage carpeting and upholstery. Cat owners who understand and accept normal cat behavior provide an acceptable place for their cats to perform this instinctive activity, and cat and owner live in peace. Other owners express another level of tolerance, choosing not to restrict their cats' scratching activities to specific items but to allow the cats to be cats and to live with the consequences.
Pet owners who misunderstand their pets' behavior may be tempted to draw a line in the sand when it comes to acceptable animal conduct. Insisting that a dog or cat "knows better" may lead to a battle of wills that both pet and owner will lose. More successful is calling a truce and finding a compromise that both can live with. If a dog can't seem to grasp the concept that it is not acceptable for her to dump over the wastebasket and peruse its contents, the wastebasket can simply be removed to a closet or cabinet. Some cats, due to unpleasant (and sometimes unknown) experiences, refuse to use a normal litterbox filled with kitty litter. Trial-and-error may lead to the discovery of a solution both cat and owner can live with, such as an empty box or a piece of clean newspaper in place of a litterbox.
Where can pet owners turn for help in dealing with the undesirable behavior of their companion animals? Fortunately, knowledge of companion animal behavior is expanding by leaps and bounds, and help is becoming more available to the pet owner and to the "misbehaving" pet. Through books, public-education information, and consultation with behavior experts, pet owners can find help in dealing with and resolving undesirable behaviors in their pets. The result can be a strengthened bond between pet owner and animal companion and a renewed commitment to spending a lifetime together.
Experts in companion animal behavior tell us that undesirable behaviors can be addressed in one of two ways: by altering the pet's environment, or environmental modification, or by changing the pet's behavior, or behavioral modification. Increasing the likelihood of success of behavioral and environmental modification techniques is the use of drugs, or behavioral pharmacotherapy, to help change an animal's behavior. When "Charley," a neutered, brown tabby cat, was two years old, he began depositing small amounts of urine on different items in his home. After examination of a urine sample ruled out the possibility of a urinary tract infection, I determined that he had developed the need to "mark" items in his house. I presumed that this need arose because Charley's owner, a veterinary technician, came home each evening with the scent of dozens of dogs and other cats on her clothes, shoes, and purse, having spent the day examining, treating, and restraining animals at the veterinary hospital where she worked. To cure Charley of this behavior -- which was apparently justifiable to him but highly unacceptable to his owner -- I embarked on a course of environmental modification coupled with behavioral pharmacotherapy. I instructed Charley's owner to place her work clothes in a hamper immediately upon arriving home each evening and to stash her purse inside a cabinet so that Charley couldn't sniff it. I also prescribed for Charley an antianxiety medication that is commonly used in the treatment of feline marking behavior. The drug caused no side effects but decreased Charley's need to establish his territory. Within two months Charley was weaned off of the drug and his undesirable behavior was resolved. It is important to remember, however, that behavioral pharmacotherapy alone rarely changes an animal's behavior. It is only used to boost the likelihood of success of environmental or behavioral modification.
In many cases a pet's behavior can be modified simply by substituting an acceptable behavior for an unacceptable one. Dog owners often complain that their dogs jump on them when they arrive home. Almost any dog can be taught to sit quietly on command rather than jump, and this behavior is especially easy to induce when the quiet and well-behaved dog is amply rewarded with the attention she so ardently desires. Unfortunately, few pet owners have extensive knowledge of companion animal behavior, and -- quite understandably -- they often don't know where to turn for help in correcting undesirable behaviors in their pets.
For many reasons a veterinarian should be the first person a pet owner consults. Some undesirable behaviors are actually symptoms of disease. A dog who starts snapping at children may be suffering from painful hip dysplasia, and a cat who urinates on the bedcovers may be suffering from a urinary tract infection. Both of these behavior problems can usually be resolved by treating the underlying medical condition. Even some behaviors that in the past have been considered effects of old age are now known to be symptoms of medical disorders. Veterinary experts have recently identified an Alzheimer's-like syndrome in dogs and cats -- known as cognitive dysfunction -- which may cause them to act abnormally and to be restless and vocal at night as well. With proper diagnosis, this condition can be treated, making life easier for both pet and pet owner.
Once medical causes of behavior problems have been ruled out, many veterinarians can provide diagnosis and treatment of behavioral disorders. As recently as ten years ago, the study of companion animal behavior was considered a diversion for veterinarians, and little training in the subject was provided within colleges of veterinary medicine. Today veterinarians realize the importance of this subject to their clients and to the well-being of their patients. Animal behavior is taught to students of veterinary medicine, and graduate veterinarians have ample opportunities to gain training by attending conferences and seminars on the subject. Since 1994 veterinarians with extensive training and experience in diagnosing and treating undesirable behavior have had the opportunity to apply for recognition as specialists by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Even a veterinarian who has no training in companion animal behavior can be a partner in resolving a pet's behavior problem. Veterinarians often refer their patients to other veterinarians or to nonveterinarians with special expertise. According to Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., of Animal Behavior Associates in Littleton, Colorado, there are three sources of help other than veterinarians for behavior problems. They are certified applied animal behaviorists, behavior consultants, and animal trainers. Certified applied animal behaviorists have specialized scientific training in animal behavior and have been evaluated and certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). Behavior consultants may have the same degree of scientific training but have not been certified by the ABS. Both certified applied animal behaviorists and behavior consultants have either masters or doctoral degrees in the study of animal behavior.
Although cats can be trained, animal trainers work primarily with dogs. Most companion animal trainers are self-taught. Some may have apprenticed under other trainers and/or attended training seminars. Trainers typically do not have formal instruction in the study of animal behavior. Good trainers are knowledgeable about many different types of training methods and use techniques that are not unpleasant to either pet owner or pet. Endorsement by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors indicates that a trainer has received peer approval and uses humane methods. Dog trainers who are certified or endorsed by any organization should be willing to provide a list of the criteria for certification or endorsement by that organization.
Animal behaviorists usually evaluate pets' living conditions: their homes and surrounding environments and their relationships with humans and other animals are all considered. This evaluation leads to a greater understanding of how pets may view particular situations and helps owners change either their pets' points of view or their own responses to the behavior. Trainers teach dog owners how to communicate with their dogs and how to ask them to perform in a desired manner. Training teaches dog and owner to work together as a team, communicating with one another so that they can peacefully coexist.
When choosing someone to help them resolve undesirable behaviors in their animal companions, pet owners should know what to look for and what to avoid. Pet owners should look for trainers or behaviorists who use nonharmful and humane methods. Recommendations that involve choking, hitting, or slapping an animal or the use of long-term confinement or isolation as a punishment indicate little or no understanding of animal behavior. A qualified person will be straightforward about a pet's problem, the possibility that it can be resolved, and the length of time it will take to do so. Some problems may take as long to solve as they have existed. A cat who has not used the litterbox properly for two years cannot be induced to change this behavior overnight. Anyone who "guarantees" results might be unqualified. Animals are living beings, not machines, and no one can guarantee that their behavior can be changed. Persons who misrepresent their qualifications to treat behavior problems are also suspect. A qualified veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist, or dog trainer will be glad to provide proof of specialized training. Pet owners should also beware of people who want to take their pets out of their homes, provide training, and then return them. Most behavior problems are the result of interactions of the animal, the owner, and the environment. The behavior of the owner often must be changed as much as the behavior of the pet, and this can be done only within the animal's normal environment.
With commitment, tolerance, patience, expert assistance, and perseverance, almost every undesirable companion animal behavior can be resolved. The key is to keep negative aspects of the relationship from overshadowing positive aspects. While it may seem that the animal benefits from resolution of the behavior, we must admit that we humans benefit more. The difficulty of resolving an undesirable behavior is a small price to pay for a lifetime of companionship, love, and acceptance.
Leslie Sinclair, D.V.M., is Director of Veterinary Issues for The HSUS Companion Animals Section.
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