How can I fix my pet's behavior problems?

Nothing is more frustrating than coming home to another pair of gnawed-on shoes, clawed furniture, or urine-soaked bedding. In one study, 65% of pet owners who relinquished dogs cited behavior problems as a primary reason. But consider the cause behind the behavior before surrendering your pet to the shelter. Try these management techniques to restore your bond with your beloved companion, preventing her one-way ticket to a new home.

Canine behavior problems

Behavior issues are one of the biggest barriers to a tight human-animal bond and often lead to shelter relinquishment or rehoming. Does your dog drive you nuts with any of these bad behaviors?

  • Barking — Dogs who sit in the window all day have nothing better to do than bark at every fluttering leaf. Many dogs bark at the slightest noise, such as a car driving by, a squirrel chittering, or the neighbor’s jingling keys. To help disguise stimulants, keep the television or radio on to override normal noises that may kick your pet’s senses into overdrive. Depending on the reason for your dog’s excessive vocalization, choose one of the following options to tire her out, relieve her boredom, and stop her barking.
  • Ditch the food bowl. Pets are designed to spend most of their day foraging for food. Dumping her entire daily kibble ration in a bowl creates a neverending buffet that often packs extra pounds on bored pets, who eat because there’s nothing else to do. Instead, make your pet work for her food. Challenge her with food puzzles of varying difficulty, give her meals stuffed inside rubber Kongs, or hide food around the house to replicate natural hunting grounds.
  • Take sniff walks. Dogs are born hunters and scavengers, so sniffing, chasing, running, digging, and rolling in dead things are natural behaviors. Short, quick walks with no chance to “stop and smell the roses” provide little enrichment or exercise and can be stressful for some dogs. Imagine being rushed through an art gallery before you get the chance to take it all in. Before long, you’d be frustrated and annoyed. Apply this same concept to your dog and consider letting her explore at her own pace on your next walk.
  • Hire a dog walker. Help alleviate your pet’s boredom during your 10-hour workday by hiring a dog walker to exercise her and break up the monotony.

Some dogs’ separation anxiety can be managed with the following therapies, which often are combined to achieve the maximum effect.

  • Calming supplements — Solliquin or Zylkene
  • Compression wraps — Thundershirts
  • Calming musicThrough a Dog’s Ear
  • Pheromone therapy — Adaptil collars and diffusers
  • Anti-anxiety medications — Fluoxetine, trazodone, or alprazolam
  • Chewing — A natural behavior for dogs, chewing causes problems when it becomes excessive or inappropriate. Dogs chew because they’re bored, anxious, or curious. Teething, inquisitive puppies are especially likely to gnaw on your favorite pair of shoes or your antique table legs. Invest in chew toys, treat puzzles, and other distractions. If your pooch is home alone, consider crate training or barricading her in a room with little to destroy.
  • Biting or aggression — Puppies are known for biting when they’re teething and before they learn correct bite inhibition. Older dogs may bite because of pain or as defensive or warning behavior. Fear often causes aggression and a dog pushed over her threshold may lash out and bite. Seek professional help if your dog displays signs such as snarling, growling, nipping, or lunging. Manage aggression in the early stages to best prevent escalation to more severe behaviors, but avoid harsh punishment methods such as hitting, kicking, or using shock collars, which can make her more aggressive and unpredictable. Instead, avoid her triggers by keeping her away from whatever sets her off, such as small children, other pets, or possessiveness over food and toys.

Feline behavior problems

The most common feline behavior issues are related to elimination, whether it’s spraying, marking, or avoiding the litter box entirely. Ensuring your cat can engage in normal feline behaviors, such as hunting, drinking, elimination, security, play, exploration, climbing, scratching, and perching, will prevent most problems. Satisfy many of your cat’s needs by adding vertical space to her area. Invest in tall climbing trees, attach shelves to the walls, and give your cat high places to perch, helping her feel safe and secure. Hide her daily portion of food in her climbing area and make her work for her meals to satisfy her need to hunt.

Here are the two most common behavior complaints concerning cats:

  • Inappropriate elimination or spraying — Litter box avoidance and spraying have different causes, but can appear similar. Cats often avoid the litter box for medical reasons, such as urinary tract infections and arthritis pain, or behavioral reasons, such as bullying or dislike of the litter box location, type of box, or litter choice. Create an attractive elimination space by providing one litter box per household cat, plus an extra one. Choose unscented, clumping, fine-grained litter, 1- to 2-inches deep. Ensure the box is large enough—at least one-and-a-half times your cat’s length from nose to tail. Avoid covered boxes and do not place boxes near loud appliances or in enclosed areas where bullying can occur. Cats who spray often use urine signals to mark their territory and may be reacting to stress caused by outdoor animals or other triggers coming too close to home.
  • Scratching — Cats scratch to burn off energy, mark their territory, or groom their nails. Attract your cat to a scratching post instead of your furniture with Feliscratch by Feliway or a bit of catnip dabbed onto the post. Keep her claws trimmed or apply gel caps to prevent sharp hooks from snagging on your furniture, clothes, or skin. Ensure your scratching posts are tall and sturdy, and reward your cat when she uses them.

Many inappropriate behaviors can be linked to underlying medical causes. Hypothyroidism, pain, cognitive dysfunction, urinary tract infections, and even ear infections can lead to serious behavior issues. We recommend scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian to determine the source of your pet’s misbehavior. For help finding an accredited veterinarian in your area, check out our AAHA-accredited hospital locator tool.