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Dog and Cat Behavior

By Dr. Jennifer J Goetz

We have all heard the expression “There are no bad dogs*”. However, anyone that has had a pet with behavior problems may not agree with that statement. If the essence of the statement is revealed, one can realize that this statement contains within much truth. The core to understanding companion animal behavior is that what we consider as bad behavior is a response to the inadequate environment, early socialization, or fear evoking experiences. Sometimes the behavior is just a normal pet behavior that is undesirable in a home environment.

Veterinary Behaviorists teach that one fear evoking experience can forever change the brain chemistry of a pet. A real-life experience is my own young dog that developed sudden thunderstorm anxiety. This two-year-old dog had no fear of thunderstorms until a nearby transformer was hit by a lightning bolt during a storm making an enormous frightening sound. Had I not been home to witness the event I would have suddenly been left with a dog with sudden anxiety for no apparent reason. Another scenario is a dog that has no anxiety of the veterinarian until examined for a medical condition presenting with acute severe pain. A painful pet will have more pain induced during an examination no matter how gentle the doctor is. In addition, wrestling a severely painful pet to administer sedation to allow a complete exam or diagnostic testing is extremely stressful and painful until the medications take effect. It is important to realize the pet is not angry with the doctor or the owner but fearful. It only takes an understanding of the flight or fight principle to realize that a scared, painful pet that is cornered has no choice but to fight. Often looking at the body language of the pet immediately before the pet tries to bite does show that flight would have been the preferred course of action. A pet that feels threatened often begins by turning the head away (or even just averting their gaze away) from the fear-inducing object (doctor or vet nurse), and sometimes cowering behind the owner, exam table, or under furniture.

It is well known that the critical period of socialization for dogs is under 8 weeks of age and for cats under 4 weeks of age. The majority of dogs and cats are adopted or purchased after these critical ages of critical socialization. It is easy to understand that this socialization period is critical to prevent anxiety around people. However, the typical house pet needs to be around many gadgets, noises, and other animals to be calm in our modern world. A dog or cat raised in a barn, even if socialized around people, may not be used to the sounds of TVs, cell phones, microwaves, cars and the like. In addition, the site of a person on a bicycle or with a walker or in a wheelchair can be quite frightening for an animal that has never seen one. While many animals born into a secluded environment may behave in an ‘acceptable’ manner, the extent of the seclusion and the genetics of the pet remain large factors in the ultimate expression in the behavior of the pet. Many people who adopt pets assume fearful behavior towards objects or types of people is due to abuse. Imagine for a minute living one’s entire life in a secluded rural environment. One day some large being picks you up and places you into an enormous noisy metal object that moves and shakes (what we call a car). You suddenly are transported to a world of lights and noises and frightening objects (a city or suburban environment). You only want to get away to a dark quiet corner to hide. However, these big scary beings tie a cord around your neck (a leash) and drag you around, put their big scary hands all over you, shout in your face, yell at you when you go to the bathroom, and throw you in a large metal box (a crate). When seen from the perspective of a frightened animal it is easy to see why the flight and fight response is activated. One can describe a similar scenario for a pet adopted from a breeder or rescue without enough time to socialize a litter of puppies or kittens. A puppy locked in a cage with the mother and littermates for 12 weeks with limited human contact may be equally as fearful. A puppy without adequate socialization kept in a crate for 12 weeks may have fear of grass, wind, sun, weather, and so on. Another such scenario is the orphan puppy or kitten bottle raised by humans. There is an enormous amount of dog-specific behavior learned by a puppy from its mother and litter-mates. Orphaned puppies that are part of a litter have a distinct advantage. However, even bottle-fed litters of puppies need exposure to a foster parent or parents to learn appropriate dog behavior and how to interpret the body language of other dogs (how to speak and read dog language). The adaptability of a puppy or kitten without the critical early period of socialization depends on how drastically the pet was deprived of appropriate stimulation, how early the pet was removed from the situation (12 weeks versus 1 year for example), and the genetics of the pet.

The hardest for most owners to understand is how the pet’s home environment can affect behavior. First one must consider the animal and the origin of that animal. First, we will examine the origin and environmental requirements of the dog. Dogs are descendants of wolves. Dogs were domesticated first fifteen thousand years ago. While dogs still require some of the innate needs of the wolf, the species has developed and changed over thousands of years to possess a markedly different set of requirements for play, work, and nutrition than their wild counterparts.

The environmental needs of a particular dog are dependent on that dog’s genetic makeup which is in large part attributable to the breed. Dogs have been bred together over thousands of years to possess certain physical and behavioral characteristics. For example, the German Shorthaired Pointer was bred to hunt. This breed is extremely active, athletic, and intelligent. This breed is extremely happy with lots of space to run and, especially, if used to as a hunting dog. Hunting for this breed serves as a very important outlet for both activity and intelligence. This breed requires regular exercise and training and is not a likely companion for a family with pet birds or rabbits or other pocket pets. On the other hand, the Chinese Pug was bred to be a house dog that is a great family dog and companion yet playful and personable. Pugs are very happy to be apartment dogs and spend their entire day lounging at their owners’ feet or following their owner around the house. They are excellent with children but if you want a hunting dog or a yard dog that will love to live outside in all types of weather this isn’t it.

There are some general needs that all dogs require. All dogs require a safe quiet place to eat and sleep. If one really thinks about the previous statement, this is a requirement of all living things, us included. What we do not realize is having a six-month-old food-driven playful puppy eating next to a 10-year-old senior dog is like eating in the cafeteria next to the high school bully. The same is true for letting a three-year-old toddler pet a dog and play with its food while it is eating. How much do parents love having their toddler crawl all over them in bed every night? Imagine if you did not know how to communicate to your child to tell him or her that it is time for sleep and not play? Sometimes we forget and let our children play with the dog while it sleeps or let the new puppy jump all over the senior dog while the poor dog is sleeping. In addition, wolves are den animals and so are dogs. Dogs adjusted to a crate den at an early age enjoy this out of way place to eat and sleep. Another thing pet parents forget is that growling and snapping is a dog’s way of communicating ‘leave me alone’ and entirely appropriate in any of the above scenarios. A dog disciplined for growling or snapping when it is scared, painful, or have a basic need such as food or sleep threatened, will no longer growl or snap but will bite first.

Dogs need to chew. This helps clean their teeth and provides an excellent form of environmental enrichment. The best chew toy often depends on the preferences of the dog as well as the size and shape of the jaws. The ideal chew toy is something the dog wants to chew on if edible is chewed slow enough to take several minutes to eat, and not so hard that teeth can be broken.

Now let us spend a little time understanding the cat. In contrast to the dog, cats have only domesticated some 2,000 years ago and then mostly to keep mice and rats out of the grain versus as true companion animals. A cat’s needs are much more closely related to their wild feline cousins. Evidence of this is how easily they can live as feral cats in the wild with no human contact. The cat is assumed by many to be the easy house pet. Just put down a litter box, a food bowl, and a water bowl and they are set. It is even assumed that the same set up even works with one cat or three. Unfortunately, there is much more involved in keeping a cat. The same requirements and same scenarios for having access to a safe quiet place to sleep and eat apply to the cat. However, they have much more complex needs. This species is not a den animal. Instead, they require vertical climbing space. In the wild, each cat has an enormous territory. The presence of vertical climbing spaces increases the amount of useable feline territory dramatically. Climbing is required for strengthening and toning the upper body muscles in the cat and provides a safe place away from people and other animals as well as a place to survey their environment.

Feeding with cats is also more complex than pet parents often assume. Each cat needs his or her own bowl and own out of the way place to eat. However, in the wild cats may attempt to make a kill one hundred times in a twenty-four hour period. Putting down a bowl of dry food and filling it weekly is not the same thing. Cats should be fed a measured amount at least twice daily. There should be at least some component of wet food, which is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. Unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores and they have a much higher need for protein which can only be fulfilled with certain types of canned food. In addition, there should be daily simulation if the hunt (this also is needed environmental enrichment for dogs). This can be in the means of laser pointers, fishing poles toys and food dispensing toys. Fishing pole toys should be used attempting to duplicate the movements of mice, snakes, and birds not waved wildly throughout the air. Cats on the kitchen counter are hunting for their meal, not because we underfeed them or they are being naught, but because it is all about the hunt.

Dogs and cats also have the innate need for a quite respectful means of elimination. In the wild, they urinate and defecate where ever they choose. In the wild, urine and feces are also used as a means to mark territory. The more animals in a small space, especially if not spayed or neutered, the more they need for marking. Stress and anxiety also lead to an increased need to mark as well as leading to many actual medical problems. Puppies must be house trained when young to learn that the entire home is their den. This is why crate training is where housebreaking often starts, as no one wants to sleep in urine or feces. Adult dogs that are not housebroken can be trained with the same concept as puppies. Housebreaking is much more difficult for adult dogs, just like it is easier to learn a second language when spoken in the home or at daycare. It is important to understand there is nothing innate to a dog or cat about holding it until the get to the location that we deem appropriate. Housebreaking kittens, by contrast, is often much easier. It is often as simple as putting a kitten in a bathroom for a week with a litter box. However, the entire housebreaking concept is entirely dependent on the presence of adequate resources. A teenage girl and teenage boy may complain about sharing the same bathroom. However, they can communicate and they have thumbs to clean the toilet (or at least mom does). Cats cannot scoop their own litter box if the other cat’s scent is in it, at least not with words. They can’t explain in words that they cannot hold it all the way downstairs as there isn’t a litter box on the second floor. If the dog is in the way, the box with the lid is too confining, it smells of bleach, it’s too tall for old or chubby legs, it’s too dirty, too far away, and so on. A kitten or senior cat may need more litter box access than an adult cat. A senior dog or puppy will have to go out more often than an adult dog. Senior dogs and puppies may not know they are outside to potty as puppies do not understand yet and older dogs might forget due to cognitive deficiencies. Both should be given ten minutes to potty, then if they don’t go potty, placed in a crate for fifteen minutes and then out to try again.

Cats are unique in that they have a need to scratch. Scratching serves as a way to mark their territory both with visual and scent marking. Scratching also stretches and tones the muscles in the forearms. When selecting a scratching post or tree it is important to have one of appropriate height and texture. Cats scratch often by standing in their hind legs and stretch their entire front legs while scratching. A two-foot post may work for kittens. However, an adult cat needs at least a three to four-foot-tall post or tree. Cat trees also serve as areas to survey their environment. Some cats also like cardboard scratchers so those are also important to have available. Some cats like softer carpet to scratch on while some like sisal while some cats like textured carpet. It is also important to trim the nails of indoor cats (and almost all dogs). Scratching (or with dogs walking on pavement) is not enough to keep nails short. When the nails get too long, they can curve around into the pads causing pain and infection. Long nails may get caught on fabric or accidentally in the thigh or arm of the pet parent. Both dogs and cats should walk on their pads, not their toenails as that can be very painful. The younger the pet, the quicker the nails grow and the more often they need to be trimmed.

Behavior in cats and dogs is a very complex topic. It requires a lot of thought about the origin of the domesticated dog and cat and the needs of these amazing animals. Because cats and dogs communicate more with sign language (the way they hold their ears, tails, size of pupils, the way they hold their body frame, etc), than with words, it is very hard for humans to understand what they are trying to say. Often behaviors that are normal for dogs and cats are interpreted as the pet acting out and trying to bad, or as our pets being angry at us. This is far from the truth. Inadequate environment, inadequate early socialization, and anxiety cause most behavior conditions in dogs and cats. Very often the human expectation of what a dog and cat is and what their needs are is more the root of the problem than the pet itself. Veterinarians treat behavior problems every day. All pets with behavior problems should immediately be brought into the veterinarian office for an examination and treatment when the behavior starts and not when the behavior has gone so long that it is completely intolerable. Treating behavior can be very rewarding with the expectations that any treatment of behavior takes weeks and months and much commitment. Sometimes medications or supplements are necessary to help the pet train more easily. However, it is important to remember that no pill will cure a behavior problem. Long term behavior therapy at home is needed to help treat behavior problems in pets. It is also important to understand that some behaviors can be improved but not cured. Some dogs are not dog people and will never be okay at the dog park or dog kennel. Some dogs and cats do not like strangers and will never be okay with strangers. It is okay in some circumstances to just avoid the triggers of anxiety and of undesired behavior instead of cure the behavior.

*For simplicity when the author talks about general terms of behavior in Companion animals the word dog is used but can as equally be applied to any companion animal including cats, birds, ferrets, etc.

*For simplicity when the author refers to a pet’s behavior as acceptable this term refers to the capacity to easily function in a modern society without the need for extensive behavior therapy.

About the Author:

Jennifer J Goetz, DVM graduated from NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine in 1997. She completed an Internship in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at Metroplex Veterinary Hospital in Dallas, Texas in 1998. She has worked as a small animal veterinarian for 21 years. Her special interests include canine and feline behavior, canine and feline geriatric internal medicine, canine and feline dentistry and surgery.