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Pets behaving badly: What you can do about common behavior issues

Are you running low on patience with a pet who is consistently displaying behavior problems? Thinking about relinquishing your pet to a shelter if you find one more mangled shoe or urine stain on your carpet?

If so, you are certainly not alone. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter the shelter system each year. And of those, about 10 percent were relinquished because their owners reported behavior issues, the ASPCA said, quoting statistics from the American Humane Association.

But before you throw in the towel and take your pet to the nearest shelter, consider that there are resources and training methods to help you shape your pet into one you would love to keep in your home.

We spoke with Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, an internationally renowned lecturer on animal behavior and 2002 winner of the American Animal Hospital Association’s PetCare Award, given in recognition of his outstanding contributions to small-animal behavior medicine. Hunthausen provided the following advice for pet owners working toward preventing or correcting four of the most common pet behavior issues.

Biting and aggression
Biting is the most common reason people relinquish dogs to shelters, and the sixth most common reason for relinquishing cats, according to a past study regarding behavioral issues that caused people to relinquish pets to shelters.

Dogs who bite or are aggressive toward people present a serious safety risk and often have complex behavior problems, Hunthausen says, making it crucial to address the problem as early as possible. He offered some steps that dog owners can take to deal with aggression:

  1. Practice early prevention. Before aggression becomes an issue, Hunthausen stresses that pet owners should take puppies and young dogs to obedience classes.
  2. Don’t give dogs an opportunity to show aggression. Before the dog has a chance to show aggression, remove her from the dangerous situation. For example, if the dog is aggressive toward people who are near her food bowl or treat, place her in a room by herself during feeding. And if she bites at visitors’ ankles when they enter your home, put her in a separate room before visitors arrive.
  3. Avoid harsh punishment for aggressive dogs. Using punishment techniques such as hitting the dog or using pinch or shock collars, especially for social issues involving aggression, can make the problem much worse by bruising the dog’s bond with humans, Hunthausen says.
  4. Seek professional help without delay. Veterinarians can provide pet owners with the tools to keep people safe and to help fix the problem, or they can refer owners to well-qualified animal behaviorists.

House soiling and spraying
House soiling is the top reason owners give cats up to shelters, according to the study mentioned above. Hunthausen recommends that owners of house-soiling cats:

  1. Rule out medical causes. If your cat is house soiling, one of your first actions should be to visit your veterinarian, who can help to rule out medical causes. A cat displaying this behavior may have an underlying medical issue, such as lower urinary tract disease or constipation.
  2. Take a closer look at the cat’s litterbox. If issues with the litterbox are causing the soiling, cat owners could see improvements by changing factors, such as litter type, brand, or depth; type of litterbox; or the location of the box.
  3. Consider your cat’s emotional state. If a cat’s urinary marking behavior—also called spraying—has an emotional or territorial origin, triggers could include a new cat in the house, other cats visiting the yard, a new baby in the family, or remodeling or redecorating the house.

To identify the root cause of house soiling or spraying behavior, Hunthausen says pet owners should think back to any significant changes in the cat’s lifestyle that occurred around the time the behavior began.

For more information, read an in-depth brochure from the American Association of Feline Practitioners that educates cat owners on the causes, treatment, and management of house soiling behavior.

Inside destruction by dogs
As with other behavior problems, it is vital to understand what can cause dogs to destroy things inside the home, Hunthausen says. He mentioned several situations where dogs might become destructive, such as a young dog who needs training, an overweight dog who has had his food intake restricted and is now raiding the trash, or a dog who is damaging the home because of separation anxiety.

If you are struggling with a dog who has a habit of destroying things in your home, here are a few tips for you:

  1. Go heavy on the exercise. Dogs with too much restless energy could take out their boredom on your furniture and possessions, so Hunthausen recommends giving dogs a heavy dose of exercise on a daily basis.
  2. Encourage the dog to chew on toys. Dog owners should give their dogs toys that are more fun to chew on than shoes and furniture, such as Kong toys that can be filled with soft food or treats. You can actively reinforce the desired behavior by giving a small treat to your dog when he starts chewing on a toy.
  3. Closely supervise the dog. Until a dog is mature, around one to two years of age, Hunthausen recommends that she should be within eyesight of a family member or kept in a confined area when alone.
  4. Try anti-chewing sprays. Sprays containing apple bitters and other ingredients can be helpful in curbing chewing.
  5. Consider motion-activated devices. Dogs can be deterred from chewing things by motion-activated devices that make warning noises when they detect a dog in a restricted area. These devices can be placed on furniture, in front of cushions, on bookshelves where dogs might try to grab books, or countertops.

Cats scratching furniture
It can come as an unpleasant surprise when a cat owner returns home to find shredded drapes or scratched cabinets. If you are familiar with this experience, you might want to try these tips:

  1. Try a variety of scratching posts. While some cats might be satisfied scratching fabric- or carpet-covered posts, Hunthausen says there are some cats who prefer something different—such as sisal or wood surfaces. Trying a new type of scratching post could more effectively capture your cat’s attention.
  2. Reward your cat for good behavior. Consider giving your cat one small treat when she approaches her scratching post and two or three small treats if she makes contact with it. These rewards could encourage her to use her scratching post more often.
  3. Avoid punishing the cat for misbehavior. Cats do not respond well to punishment, and even yelling could damage the cat’s relationship with you.
  4. Use technology to your advantage. The same motion-activated devices mentioned above for dogs can also teach cats to stay away from certain furniture or rooms through hissing or alarm sounds.
  5. Keep an eye on the cat. “During the early months of shaping the behavior, the cat should be within eyesight of a family member at all times or confined to a safe room where the most likely thing he’ll scratch is going to be a scratching post while the owner is at work,” Hunthausen says.

Closing words
Be sure to ask your veterinarian about any specific behavior issues you are experiencing with your pet. Your veterinarian would be happy to give you the tools and knowledge you need, or refer you to a qualified animal behaviorist, to ensure your pet remains a well-behaved and valued member of your family.


Seth Davis is a freelance writer and proud owner of a relatively well-behaved labradoodle named Benny.


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