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Pet peeves.


Behavior problems kill more pets every year than diseases or accidents. Thousands of dogs and cats that drive their owners crazy are abandoned to die slow, cruel deaths or are taken to animal shelters. The tragedy is that almost 100 percent of pet behavior problems are preventable or correctable with a little knowledge and patience. Pet owners often have unrealistic expectations. They think that their pet should be like Lassie or Morris but don't realize the amount of time, responsibility, and commitment that goes along with pet ownership.

Common causes of pet behavior problems are physical illness, failure on the owner's part to choose the proper pet, failure to understand the pet's basic nature or individual personality, and failure to recognize and correct stress factors in the pet's life. Whether a pet is a happy, welcome addition to the family or a nuisance depends entirely on the owner. All dogs and cats should be trained to abide by the "house rules." Properly disciplining a pet really does the animal a favor.

Physical problems are at the root of many behavior abnormalities. Whenever a behavior problem surfaces, we must first rule out any physical condition that may be causing it. Kidney or bladder disease can cause a cat to urinate outside the litter box, a sore ear can provoke a pet to bite, or a brain tumor might be at the root of a personality change. Have a thorough physical examination done before trying any type of behavior modifications or giving up on your pet. Good nutrition and preventive medicine are the keys to keeping your pet in tiptop physical condition.

The first step in eliminating or preventing problem behaviors is to understand the basic nature of the pet. Different breeds of dogs or cats have very different personalities. What owners perceive as problems may be very natural, deeply ingrained behavior. Tabbies that hunt mice or scratch the furniture, and terriers that dig up the garden, are only doing what nature has programmed them to do for thousands of generations. Owners must learn to redirect these behaviors or avoid acquiring these pets. Some breeds are better with children, less active, less destructive, or more trainable than others. Ask a veterinarian for some help when choosing your pet. Many animal shelters keep personality profiles on the pets they have for adoption and have an animal behaviorist on staff who can help you with your selection.

Stress is a frequent cause of both physical and behavioral problems. Dogs and cats are creatures of habit with definite social needs. Any change in routine, however small, can be very upsetting. The addition of a new family member, either human or animal; a change of work schedule, or residence; remodeling; a houseful of company; being left alone for long periods; boredom; inconsistent or inappropriate discipline; or even changing the location of food dishes or litter boxes can be stressful and lead to objectionable behavior. Older pets are especially prone to developing stress-related problems. Physical effects of aging, such as loss of vision, loss of hearing, or the aches and pains of arthritis, can complicate matters.

Housebreaking Problems

Cats that stop using the litter box should first be checked for such physical problems as bladder disease or parasites. Always provide at least one litter box per cat in multi-cat households, and place boxes in areas pleasant and convenient for the cat. Cats dislike scented litters (use only plain clay varieties), dirty boxes (change daily and use small amounts of litter), and litter boxes with covers. Never disturb a cat while it is in its litter box or allow children or other animals to do so. A cat won't use the box if it is afraid of being "attacked." Make certain the cat has ready access to the box at all times. Never clean out a box with strong-smelling disinfectants or detergents. Simply rinsing the box with water and allowing it to dry in the sun is best. any kind of stress can cause a cat or dog to break house-training.

Dogs also should first be checked for physical problems. House soiling in dogs is often the result of isolation; spending more time with your dog can be the solution. Submissive urination is normal in puppies and very timid dogs. Punishing a dog for this only makes the matter worse. Quiet, consistent handling and lowkey greetings will usually solve the problem over time.

Digging, Barking, and

Destructive Chewing

All these behaviors in dogs can be linked to boredom and isolation frustration. Develop a good relationship with your dog and spend as much time with it as possible. Confining a dog to a crate when you can't be with it is not cruel and is often the only solution to these problems. Your veterinarian can give you instructions on proper crate training. Because chewing is natural for all dogs, you should supply your dog with a rawhide bone or other acceptable chew toy. Never give your dog an old shoe to chew on and then get mad when it chews up your brand-new pair of Nikes. The dog doesn't know the difference. If the dog chews or digs, say no, discipline it appropriately, and give it something else to do that is acceptable. Taking your dog through an obedience program will usually help solve these problems.


Before resorting to having a cat declawed, cat owners should try to train the cat to use a scratching post. Provide a heavy post or one of the new corrugated cardboard scratching boards, and take your cat to it each time it tries to scratch on the furniture. Squirting your cat with water whenever it tries to scratch on the couch can be an effective detterrent. Scratching is a natural behavior that cannot be eliminated but can be redirected to an appropriate object.


Aggression in both dogs and cats toward people or other animals is a common problem. Both species have territorial urges that are especially strong in males. Neutering can eliminate many of these problems. Some breeds, such as the pit bull, are more aggressive than others and have special needs that must be taken into consideration. Dogs see their human family as they would a dog pack. In every pack there is a leader (called the alpha animal). If strong leadership isn't provided by the pet owner and other members of the family, the dog may try to take over.

Going to obedience classes can establish the human family members as leaders. If this is not done, your dog will literally run your household, and training will be nearly impossible. Some breeds will require stronger handling than others. Be careful when choosing a puppy. The puppy in a litter that is the first to come to you is probably the most dominant personality and may be the hardest to train.

Cats are more often aggressive to each other than to people. There is usually little that can be done except to avoid overcrowding and give each cat its "own space." No pet should ever be allowed to bite or scratch a person. Stopping such action searly on is normally easily done.

Any training should follow the reward principle. Pets, like people, respond better to positive rewards than to punishment. Punishment should always be appropriate and in a language your pet understands. Yelling and hitting indiscriminately will only frighten and confuse your pet and make matters worse. Ask your veterinarian or obedience instructor to show you appropriate methods of discipline and behavior modification. Many communities have animal behaviorists that can be used by referral from your veterinarian. Then give your pet lots of time and patience. The most frequent cause of failure is inconsistency on the part of the trainer and giving up too soon. Take your time. Your pet will love you for it.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:pet behavior problems
Author:Hoeppner, Gabrielle
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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