Pet Behavior Problems: In the Eye of the Beholder?

How do we decide when a pet’s behavior is a problem?

Posted Jun 29, 2018

Dogs, cats (and other pets) can have all kinds of behavior issues, some of which we find endearing, some we tolerate, and some we struggle with. How do we know when an issue like this is a problem?

Shannon Richards/Unsplash
Source: Shannon Richards/Unsplash

One thing we have to remember is to take the pet’s perspective. Some behaviors we don’t like are perfectly normal. For example, dogs chasing squirrels are just showing predatory behavior that different dogs have to a greater or lesser extent due to the fact they evolved from wolves. Dogs like to chew on things and puppies in particular like to explore the world through their mouths. Cats scratch to keep their claws in tip-top condition and to leave pheromones (chemical signals) behind.  In these cases, the behavior is not really a problem, it’s something we need to find allowable outlets for with e.g. Frisbees to chase, chew toys to chew on, and good scratching posts that the cat actually likes.

Of course, our own perspective matters too, and we can differ in what we think is a problem. One example is dogs jumping up to greet. Some people like it because the dog is being friendly and they like to be greeted that way. Some people hate it and prefer dogs to sit or stand to be greeted. Jumping up can be a problem if people are infirm or in pain, have their hands full of shopping, don’t want muddy paws on their nice clean clothes, or simply don’t want to be hassled.

Some kinds of behaviors are more likely to be seen as problematic than others. A study in Italy (Pirrone et. al. 2015) found the three behaviors people were more likely to see as a problem were aggression towards other dogs, being fearful on walks, and aversion to strangers. Other behaviors that also tended to be seen as a problem included being aggressive to the owner, being possessive of food or toys, persistent barking,  attention-seeking, being reactive to noises, and house-soiling. The extent to which people felt they were a problem was linked to whether or not they were likely to do something about them.

Although both reactivity to noises and attention-seeking were in the top 3 behavior issues, they were not the ones most likely to be seen as problematic. Many dogs are afraid of fireworks, and perhaps it only comes to mind at times of year when they are likely, and is forgotten at other times, which would be the best time to start working on the problem. (See here and here for some tips on dogs and fireworks).

The study also found gender differences in seeing behavior as problematic. For example, men were more likely than women to say house-soiling was a problem. The scientists suggest that gender roles may mean men are less likely to be willing to clean up after a pet.

Another study of recently-adopted dogs and cats found that even if the pet had a behavior issue, most people were satisfied with their pet’s behavior overall (Scott et. al. 2018). For both dogs and cats, inappropriate chewing or scratching and house-soiling issues featured in the top three complaints (with leash pulling for dogs and other issues for cats also in the top three). Only a few people wanted help from a behaviorist when it was offered

When should you seek help for a pet’s behavior problem?

Any time someone is at risk from your pet’s behavior, it’s important to seek help. For example, if your dog is growling and lunging at people, whether it’s at visitors to the home or strangers in the street, there is a real risk someone could be bitten. It’s important to seek help before that happens. If your dog has already bitten, it’s definitely time to find help from a qualified professional. The same applies to cats because even cats can sometimes be aggressive.

You should also seek help if you think your pet’s welfare is at risk. Some behavior problems – including house soiling in a dog or cat that is normally house-trained – can have a medical cause. Changes in behavior can be a sign of something amiss such as pain. Some behavior problems that are not medical may also affect the pet’s welfare, such as a dog or cat that hates to be touched and won’t tolerate grooming; if the fur becomes matted as a result, they will be uncomfortable (and they will probably hate being touched even more).

Remember that dogs are not perfect and many issues are not a problem. But any time you have concerns, you should seek help. Depending on the issue, you may need to start with your veterinarian, or find a good dog trainer. Sometimes your vet will refer you to a veterinary behaviorist.

Whether the problem is one that is easy or slow to resolve, it’s usually best to seek help sooner rather than later so it does not keep getting worse. And if the issue is something that is actually normal from the pet’s perspective – like dogs chewing or cats scratching – the solution is to find an approved outlet for those behaviors that will keep both you and your pet happy.

References

Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Mazzola, S. M., Vigo, D., & Albertini, M. (2015). Owner and animal factors predict the incidence of, and owner reaction toward, problematic behaviors in companion dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(4), 295-301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.004

Scott, S., Jong, E., McArthur, M., & Hazel, S. J. (2018). Follow-up surveys of people who have adopted dogs and cats from an Australian shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.12.021