Treating Behavior Problems in Pets
Unwanted behavior is a top cause for pets to be relinquished, rehomed, or euthanized. Dealing with a pet that has a behavior problem can be frustrating or even unsafe. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about approaching the treatment of behavior problems in pets. Some of this misinformation can cause the behavior problem to worsen.
Causes of Behavior Problems in Pets
Surprisingly, the number one cause of behavior problems in pets is disease. Kidney disease, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism), and any condition causing pain or discomfort can result in an unwanted change in behavior. Any time there is a change in a pet’s behavior, the first thing to do is schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for an exam and probable lab work to make sure your pet isn’t suffering from a medical problem. Treating a medical problem may resolve the pet’s behavior problem!
Normal Behavior Expressed in Undesirable Ways
Some behavior problems are normal behaviors that the pet can’t express due to the pet’s management.
It’s normal for cats to scratch surfaces for claw maintenance. Many cats have specific preferences for the materials they want to scratch, which may not be provided in the home. Therefore, the cat scratches the furniture or walls.
Shelties often “round up” kids by yipping constantly and nipping at their heels- perfectly normal behavior, but also completely undesirable in most homes.
The answer is not to declaw the cat, or to euthanize the sheltie. It’s to provide the pets with the ability to express their normal behaviors in an acceptable way. Get different scratching posts. Have your sheltie herd balls instead of children. That’s just responsible pet ownership.
The 3rd general cause of pet behavioral problems is emotional issues. Most true behavior problems in pets are due to fear, anxiety, and stress. Even pets who are aggressive are often aggressive due to fear- they simply realized that aggression makes the scary thing go away. That is a VERY powerful motivator for the pet to continue displaying the aggressive behavior.
Emotional issues may be genetic. We know that pets born to parents with certain behavior traits are likely to have similar traits. This is helpful when we are breeding dogs for herding, for example. Not so much if the behavior trait is fear. Some lines of German Shepherd Dogs, for example, are highly fear aggressive, because the breeders were hoping to make good protection dogs. Unfortunately the breeders overshot the degree of fear and the dogs are afraid of literally everyone in every situation. That’s not a happy life for the dog, nor a safe dog even for protection work.
Emotional issues can be caused by poor conditions in the womb. This is especially true of kittens whose mother lacks certain nutrients in their diet when they are pregnant. Those kittens often have developmental issues causing behavior problems. These animals often have high baseline stress, which can make them highly reactive. Many of these pets require daily medication to reduce their stress.
Poor socialization can also be a cause of emotional issues. Pets who are not exposed to new things and people properly are often fearful of new people and things. These pets can even appear as if they had been abused even if they never had been.
Some emotional issues are caused by bad experiences. Pets who are shocked, choked, wrestled to the ground, yelled at, hit, and so on suffer psychological abuse that may cause behavior problems.
We can’t change the past- what’s done is done. We can help your pet achieve a better emotional state and in return, improve their behavior problems and your relationship with your pet. No pet is too old to deserve a better life.
How to Solve Behavior Problems in Pets
1. Recognize the Problem
Signs of Anxiety in This Video
- Lip Smacking, licking lips
- Turning her head away from the scary dog
- Increased respiratory rate
- Ears back, tense facial expression
- Whale eye
- Grooming and chewing on herself
That’s a lot of signs of anxiety in a one-minute video! This is my own dog Natasha, who had woken up from a nap to realize that our new dog, Annika, had curled up way too close for comfort. Natasha didn’t mind sharing the sofa with Sirella, the Rottweiler, since Sirella always chose the opposite side of the sofa. Annika laying in the middle section was just too much.
Here is a nice graphic from Fear Free Happy Homes the common signs of increasing fear, anxiety, and stress in dogs and cats:
Immediately after I ended recording, Natasha got off the sofa and laid down elsewhere. She was already at FAS 4: she moved away from the “scary” sleeping Annika! I had to act quickly, because I needed Annika and Natasha to get along well. If Natasha had felt trapped by Annika, there could have been a fight.
2. Record the Problem Behaviors
I don’t necessarily mean to video the behaviors, but to keep a journal of when you notice signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in your pet. It doesn’t hurt to video the behavior also. However, do not put your pet into situations where you know they are going to exhibit signs of fear, anxiety, and stress just to get a video of it.
The one exception is if you suspect separation anxiety in your pet. Set up a camera to record their behavior when you are gone. Sometimes what seems like separation anxiety is actually something else, like boredom, a reaction to something scary, or barrier anxiety.
Do not delay asking for help for your pet as soon as you see the first signs of a behavior problem. The sooner behavior problems are treated, the happier your pet will be!
What to Record
- Who was present during the incident of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression?
- Where the incident took place: in a crate, at the front door, on a walk in the neighborhood, etc.
- What were the factors leading up to the incident? When did you first notice the signs of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression?
- What did you do when you first noticed the signs of fear, anxiety, stress, or aggression?
- What were the results of your intervention, if any?
- What happened immediately after the incident? How did your pet act later?
- Note anything else that may be useful such as medical conditions, changes in the home environment, or other potential stressors that may have contributed to your pet’s behavior.
3. Avoid the Situations that Cause the Problem
We all know the joke….
If at all possible, avoid the situations that you know cause your pet fear, anxiety, or stress. If your dog is showing aggression towards other dogs while leash walking, perhaps you can exercise your dog at home. Or take them for walks where and when you are much less likely to meet other dogs. If your cats are fighting, set up cat areas in different parts of your home with litter boxes, food, water, cat trees, toys, etc. and prevent your cats from even seeing each other. If your pet is nervous in the car or at the veterinary clinic, maybe a home visit will be better for anything other than an emergency.
Some things can not be avoided, such as thunderstorms, or people shooting off fireworks around Independence Day. You can try to mask the noise with TV or music. Close the blinds so your pet can’t see the lightening or fireworks. It’s OK to let your pet hide if that gives them comfort. We’ll have another blog post with more specific things you can do to help your pet with storm anxiety later.
Get Help for Your Pet's Behavior Problem
What NOT to Do
It is tempting to punish your pet for their bad behavior. However, since most behavior problems are caused by fear, anxiety, and stress, things like shocking, choking, alpha-rolling, growling, yelling, hitting, or otherwise inflicting pain (even if they’re called “corrections”) only increases the fearful emotional state at the root of the problem. You may be able to temporarily suppress the problem behavior, but you can’t solve the problem that way.
Here is a common example. A dog is aggressive towards other dogs on a leash. A “trainer” uses a choke, shock, or prong collar to “correct” the dog’s lunging and barking. The dog may not lunge and bark, but the fear of other dogs is present, and possibly even worse because now every time he sees another dog, he is hurt.
You may think that the lack of barking and lunging means the dog is no longer aggressive. But what happens if another dog is allowed to approach? The dog bites “out of the blue.” All the trainer managed to do is suppress the dog’s expression of his fear, but the fear never went away. When the fear of the other dog overwhelms the dog’s fear of punishment, he dog is going to defend himself aggressively. It’s shocking and sad that so many trainers don’t understand the basic principles of canine behavior and how dogs learn.
Hiring a Behaviorist
Who you choose to help your pet is critically important. For pets suffering from fear, anxiety, or aggression, the last thing they need is someone who instructs you to choke, shock, pinch, or otherwise add more stress to their lives. Unfortunately, there are many behaviorists and trainers who are still using these inhumane and antiquated practices to correct behavior problems despite the mounds of science discrediting their methods.
The first step is to see your veterinarian to make sure your pet doesn’t have a medical cause for the behavior problem.
Then, make sure you are providing your pet with adequate expression for their normal behavior. If you’re not sure if the behavior is normal, ask your veterinarian.
Once you have ruled out medical problems and ensured adequate expression for normal behavior, if the behavior persists, you need the help of a behaviorist.
Behavior Treatment Credentials
Veterinary Behavior Specialist
A veterinary animal behaviorist is the most qualified person to help you with behavior treatment in your pet. The veterinarian behavior specialist has not just completed their doctor of veterinary medicine degree, they have also done a year-long internship and at least 3 years residency in behavior, then passed a national board exam. A Diplomate in animal behavior has DVM and DACVB following their name. Many veterinarian behaviorists work in specialty hospitals or at veterinary colleges. Unfortunately, there are only about 80 veterinarian behaviorists in the USA. They can be found on the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist website.
There are two ways that a Veterinary Behavior Specialist can help. Many will collaborate with the pet’s primary veterinarian and help direct care. Or the primary care veterinarian may refer the client and pet owner directly to the Specialist for treatment in more complicated cases.
Applied Animal Behaviorist
The Animal Behavior Society is a professional organization that promotes and advances the scientific study of animal behavior. There are 2 levels of certification for an Applied Animal Behaviorist: Certified, and Associate Certified. Both certifications require at least a Master’s or Doctoral degree, original research, and extensive experience in scientific animal behavior research or treatment. A Certified/Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist may be a veterinarian or other professional who works in zoos, shelters, academia, agriculture, wildlife organizations, and other fields where animals may exhibit behavior problems. An A/CAAB has a deep understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn, and the tools used to change the behavior in a humane way.
Many A/CAABs provide the same kind of services as a Veterinary Behavior Specialist. If the A/CAAB is not a veterinarian, they are not legally able to diagnose medical conditions or behavior problems or prescribe medications. But they can work with the primary care veterinarian to change the underlying emotional state causing the behavior problem.
Some veterinarians, like myself, have a special interest in behavior treatment. I didn’t do an internship or residency and while I have undertaken hundreds of hours in continuing education in behavior treatment for animals, I am not a specialist. That title is reserved for Diplomates. Shockingly, even though the number one cause for pets to be rehomed or relinquished to an animal shelter is behavior problems, behavior is not a required course in vet school. In other words, most veterinarians do not have the knowledge to prevent a major cause of death in owned pets. No veterinarian will undertake a case for which they are not qualified, therefore few veterinarians provide behavior treatment services at all. Practically speaking, it is difficult for a general practitioner to provide behavior treatment services due to the time and education involved. One reason I chose to limit my services is so I can focus more on behavior. Many veterinarians can collaborate with others to help pets with behavior problems.
A general practitioner veterinarian like myself can diagnose and treat medical causes of behavior problems, identify gaps in the pet’s ability to express normal behavior and offer solutions, and diagnose and treat behavior problems, including prescribing medications if necessary.
Registered Veterinary Technician Specialist in Behavior
One such person a veterinarian can team up with is a registered veterinary technician behavior specialist. After completing the program and passing national boards to be a registered veterinary technician (RVT), the individual must also log 4000 hours of behavior treatment and pass a national board exam in behavior. More information about RVT-VTS(behavior) and a member directory can be found on the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians’ website.
The RVT-VTS in behavior can work under the direction of any veterinarian to implement a behavior treatment plan. They are not able to diagnose medical or behavioral problems, or prescribe medications. But they are instrumental in ensuring the behavioral treatment plan is working, and conduct much of the client education in this matter.
Unlike all of the other credentials, there are no educational requirements, board exams, or standards for animal trainers. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a very good explanation of the situation.
Literally anyone can call themselves an animal trainer, whether or not they have any understanding of animal behavior or learning theory. This situation has led to a proliferation of people- some of them quite famous- who psychologically abuse animals in the name of training. There is no governing body to stop them, so the public and animals are completely unprotected against and duped by these people. They may call themselves “balanced” trainers, but in reality they use mostly physical pain, dominance theory, and aversive techniques that have been scientifically discredited.
Trainers can not diagnose medical or behavior problems, nor can they prescribe medications for the treatment of any disease. They can work with veterinarians much in the same way as RVT-VTS in behavior do. Good trainers are also essential in preventing behavior problems by guiding pet owners through proper early socialization, teaching pet owners how to use training to communicate effectively with their pets.
There are some schools of animal training who have adopted the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) philosophy and who use positive reinforcement (R+) and force free techniques. These are the good trainers. Here is a list of schools that use these techniques:
LIMA and R+ Animal Training Schools
- Academy for Dog Trainers Graduate or have Academy for Dog Trainers Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC) from former SF SPCA program
- American College of Veterinary Behaviorists Diplomate (DACVB)
- Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer or Animal Behavior College Certified Cat Trainer
- Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB)
- Canine Training Technician (Accredited) (CTT-A)
- CATCH Canine Trainers Academy Certified Dog Trainer
- Certified Behavior Consultant through IAABC
- Certified Behavior Counselor Canine (CBCC-KA)
- Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA)
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB)
- Dogma Certified Behavior Consultant (DCBC)
- Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP)
- Member of American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)
- Pat Miller Certified Trainer (PMCT)
- Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (Accredited) (PCBC-A) through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board
- Professional Canine Trainer (Accredited) (PCT-A)
- Professional Development Diploma in Canine Behavior Analysis and Counseling through the American College of Applied Science
- Veterinary Technician Specialist with Specialty in Behavior (VTS-Behavior)
- Victoria Stilwell Academy Graduate
Trainers without credentials can be excellent at their job as well. Just ask for their views on LIMA or Positive Reinforcement, or if they ever recommend shock, pinch, or choke collars, and you’ll have your answer right quick.
We do NOT recommend Board to Train facilities for the correction of behavior problems for multiple reasons. Here’s a good explanation from the AKC.
How We Can Help
If you are in the Sanford or Southern Pines areas of North Carolina, we can help! Dr. Meghan has been treating animal behavior problems for over 10 years. Her credentials include:
- Elite Level Fear Free Certified
- Low Stress Handling Silver Certified
- Member of the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior
- Member of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management
- Member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
Our trainer, Jael, has been training dogs for almost 9 years and is instrumental in implementing behavior treatment plans with Dr. Meghan. Jael is a
- Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer
- Fear Free Certified Veterinary Professional
- Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer and Mentor
- Certified Professional Coach
- National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer
You do not have to be a client of Family Veterinary Mobile Clinic to get behavior or training services. We work with your current veterinarian to help solve all kinds of behavior problems in dogs and cats.
Go to Behavior Services for more information.