Bad to the Bone: Animal Behavior Questions
We asked a local animal behavior expert what your furry friends are fretting about and how you can fix it
To a pet papa or mama, Crazy Stupid Love is more than a movie title: The words describe our cats and dogs, the silly, occasionally infuriating, heart stealers we worship. To help us cope with our furry friends’ less-than-perfect ways, Sydney Warner, a certified dog trainer, canine behavior consultant and owner of Clever Critters, LLC in Yorktown, answered our questions about why our pets do what they do—and how we can get them to obey us.
Fido and His Fears
Coastal Virginia Magazine: My pup is terrified of the vet. What can I do to calm him down?
Clever Critters: This is more common than pet parents realize. We’re asking our pets to be comfortable with someone handling and touching them and doing things that may be painful. Working with a vet that is familiar with fear-free and low-stress handling procedures is one step. At home, you can use cooperative care, a way of training your pet with force-free methods. Another way is to visit your vet at slow times and practice easy cues, letting your pet earn treats. Some pets are so stressed that anti-anxiety medication can also benefit them.
Without a Scratch
CoVa Mag: My cat has torn my furniture to shreds. I have thoughts about declawing but I’m not sure. Help! How can I get her to stop?
CC: Scratching is normal, however, we don’t have to allow scratching the furniture to meet that instinct! Declawing doesn’t address the cat’s needs and greatly increases the risk of litterbox aversion and aggression due to pain from removing the tips of their digits. Alternatives to declawing, such as nail caps, that can protect your furniture. A more effective approach is to teach your cat what is appropriate to scratch and promote that behavior. Provide scratching options, such as rope and cardboard scratchers, and reward your cat for scratching there, while preventing unwanted scratching by using barriers temporarily. You can also use FeliScratch, catnip, and silvervine to promote appropriate scratching areas.
Hostess WithOUT the Mostess
CoVa Mag: Our dog barks and jumps on guests, not listening to us. Besides locking him away, how can I get him to be friendly?
CC: Determine if your dog is barking and jumping due to excitement, or if he is uncomfortable with your guest. In both scenarios, your dog may be so aroused that his brain cannot effectively process your cues. Teach him what to do. This is a process. Your dog may need to work on desensitizing the sound of knocking and the doorbell, going to a station in another room, four feet on the floor, and disengaging from guests. Use pet gates, leashes, or other barriers until he can learn. You can also ask your guests to toss treats (the dog chases the treats instead of jumping) and ignore the dog to lower the excitement faster.
Thinking INSIDE the Box
CoVa Mag: My kitty has decided her litter box is no longer the right place to do her business. Why did she change her mind and how can I get her back on track?
CC: Any change in litter box habits should be addressed with your veterinarian. Rule out medical contributions, followed by assessing environmental factors, including the box size and placement, relationships between other pets and stressors such as moving, renovations, and a new baby. Once those are addressed, your cat may go back to using the box, or you can reteach her.
CoVa Mag: My cat has gone from introvert to extrovert, constantly meowing. What is going on and how can I get him to be quiet?
CC: Besides for food or attention, this could be to alert us to pain. If your adult female cat is meowing, it could be due to going into heat. Meowing can also be a sign of grief, anxiety, or distress, and in aging cats a sign of cognitive dysfunction and confusion, or age-related health decline such as hearing loss. To teach your cat to be quieter, you need to first address why the meowing is occurring. If you simply have a talkative cat, reward quiet with play and treats and do not respond to meowing for attention, food, or toys. For boredom, anxiety, and cognitive decline, incorporate mental exercises. This could be training your cat to offer behaviors on cue such as targeting, recall, and tricks, or puzzle feeders to promote the natural instinct to hunt. Talk with your vet if you suspect your cat is suffering.
H2O a No-Go
CoVa Mag: Our doggo only takes the occasional lick of water from his bowl, after years of using it. We find him drinking from a water feature in our yard instead. What’s going on?
CC: Talk to your vet to rule out medical factors. If that’s not the case, assess any environmental changes. How often is the water bowl cleaned? How often is it emptied and not refilled quickly? How accessible is it? As your dog ages, it may be difficult for him to access the bowl, so your dog will seek out alternatives. What about trauma? Some dogs do not like their tags clinking against metal bowls and become fearful. This can also be true for other things near the dish. Alternatively, a water feature may be more fun. When he drinks from it, he is automatically reinforced for using it, learning to use it again. Your dog may not be getting adequate enrichment and trying to beat boredom.
Not Loving the Loving
CoVa Mag: My dog is way too friendly “greeting” people. I think you can guess what I mean. How can I get him to stop?
CC: The taboo behavior—“humping,” or more appropriately, “mounting”—embarrasses many pet parents, but is normal. Male and female pets, altered or unaltered, do it, often to deal with stress. It’s a way to release energy. If your pet is mounting, ask yourself if he or she has the appropriate skills to handle whatever is occurring. If not, train for the needed skills.