Pets add so much to our lives — companionship, happiness, laughter, even purpose. But dogs and cats can also increase our stress and frustration, especially when it seems their “bad” behaviors are out of control. The good news is that many annoying cat and dog behaviors can be curbed or eliminated without you having to give up your furry companion. If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to improve your pet’s manners, here are a few things to consider before you start.
Look at the whole picture
According to Amy L. Pike, a veterinarian and board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia, behavior problems are the number one reason pets are surrendered to animal shelters. Urinating (peeing) outside of the litter box is the most common reason cat owners provide for giving up their cats, while aggression is the most frequently cited complaint about dogs.
Dogs and cats with behavioral problems are often considered and labeled as “naughty,” “spiteful,” “stubborn,” “stupid” or “bad.” In reality, however, there is no such thing as a “bad dog” or “bad cat.” Behavior problems are typically more complicated and can have a variety of underlying causes. Understanding the reasons why your pet behaves the way they do is the first, and most important, step to curbing whichever nuisance behavior has you frustrated. Here are the five most common reasons behind your pet’s behavior.
Reason No. 1: The presence of a health or physical problem.
Medical issues lead to nuisance behaviors more frequently than pet owners realize. For example, arthritis pain in dogs can cause a senior dog to display aggression, while kidney disease in cats may be the underlying reason for house soiling. If your pet suddenly develops a behavior problem, they should be examined by a veterinarian to rule out potential medical issues.
Some health problems — such as idiopathic cystitis, environmental allergies, flatulence (gas), arthritis and stomach upset — that contribute to nuisance behaviors may benefit from medication or supplements as prescribed by your veterinarian. However, a change in pet food, treats or feeding practices may also be beneficial. Make sure you’re feeding a complete and balanced dog or cat food that’s made with high-quality protein and other nutritious ingredients like Diamond Naturals Chicken Dinner for Adult Cats and Kittens or Diamond Naturals Adult Dog Lamb Meal and Rice Formula. And be sure to limit treats to no more than 10 percent of your pet’s daily calories to avoid unbalancing your dog’s or cat’s nutrition.
Reason No. 2: An inconsistent environment or interactions with family members.
Pets need structure, predictability and consistent boundaries and rules to thrive. An unpredictable environment and inconsistent interactions may trigger anxiety in some dogs and cats. Anxious dogs in particular may use aggression to feel more in control. So be sure to consider how you’re responding to your pet’s annoying behavior and ask whether you’re reinforcing the behavior with attention.
Reason No. 3: Misunderstanding “normal” dog or cat behaviors.
Normal cats scratch on whatever surface they like to mark their territory, remove the outer layer of their nails (called a husk) and exercise their paws. They also jump on counters and furniture so they can hang out in high places, chew on plants, and hunt and kill other small animals and birds.
Normal dogs jump up to greet, bark, pull on leash, protect their family or property, roll in dead things, dig in the dirt, and sometimes chase and kill small animals.
These “nuisance” behaviors are actually natural behaviors for cats and dogs. Sometimes you can teach your pet an alternative behavior, but sometimes you can’t.
You’ll also want to avoid assuming that your dog’s or cat’s begging behavior is related to hunger. Often what your pet really wants is your attention. Rather than free-choice feeding your pet, feed two or three meals throughout the day or use a puzzle-feeder to deliver part of your pet’s food. The feeding guide found on the bag or can of pet food provides recommendations on how much you should be feeding. If you have any concerns about how much to feed, talk with your veterinarian who can calculate your dog’s or cat’s daily calorie needs.
Reason No. 4: Not enough exercise or mental stimulation.
Both dogs and cats need physical and mental activities to be healthy, happy and well balanced. Dogs in particular were bred with specific jobs in mind, some of which they no longer perform. It’s also important to realize that some dog breeds require more exercise than others, so it’s important to consider your lifestyle when adopting or buying a canine companion.
Mental stimulation and enrichment for our pets are often overlooked, but incredibly beneficial. In fact, mental exercise can be as tiring as physical activities! And keeping your dog or cat “mentally occupied” helps relieve boredom and keeps them from engaging in annoying attention-seeking behaviors like early-morning wake-ups, meowing or barking.
Reason No. 5: Lack of, poor or negative socialization.
Socializing pets when they’re puppies and kittens means helping them learn to be comfortable in human society, which is filled with many different environments, smells, people and animals. The prime time for socialization is 3 weeks to 4 months of age for puppies and 2 to 7 weeks of age for kittens. If proper socialization doesn’t occur during these periods, your pet could grow up into a fearful, shy adult.
Continuing to provide social experiences for your pet as they age will be important to help keep your dog or cat comfortable and confident.
Next steps in addressing unwanted behaviors
Once you’ve had time to think about the potential reasons for your dog’s or cat’s nuisance behaviors — and your pet has received a clean bill of health from the veterinarian — it’s time to create a plan for tackling those annoying behaviors. Throughout the coming year, we’ll identify some strategies and activities that can help you modify your pet’s behavior.