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NJ Veterinary Medical Association
390 Amwell Road, Suite 402
Hillsborough, NJ 08844
info@njvma.org
Phone:  908-281-0918
Fax:  908-450-1286
 

Behavior
Sometimes pets do the darndest things! Learn about common behavior issues, their causes and how to correct them.
 


Dear Veterinarian:
We got a new puppy and the veterinarian recommended crate training-can you explain what this involves?

Dear Pet Owner:
Crate training at first may not sound appealing-of course you picture your new puppy running around and being an active part of the family. But, he or she must first learn the house rules before being given too much freedom. At first, a few accidents in the house are no big deal, but that will become less fun as time goes by. Also, it is so important to start the training right at the beginning, so your puppy will grow up to be a trusted and obedient household member. Crate training is based on the natural concept that a dog will not want to dirty its den (where it sleeps). That is why the crate should be big enough were he or she can stand up and turn around but not sleep in one area and then be able to void in another. However, if the pup will be in the crate extended periods, such as when you are at work, you do need to have a larger area for him. By being in the crate the pup is making a conscious effort to hold things in until taken out. A rule of thumb is that the puppy can be in the crate one hour longer than its age in months (so a 3 month old would stay in 4 hours). However, no puppy can be expected to last 8-10 hours without urinating or defecating.

You can initially teach your puppy that the crate is a good place by feeding the puppy in the crate with the door open. You can then progress to leaving the pup in the crate for 5-10 minutes at a time, with a toy and something to chew. Crates should be placed in family areas, not in the basement or garage.

A routine is best ie: up in the early am, take outside, feed, take out again, play time, take out again then back in the crate for the allotted time. Then the process is repeated. As the puppy gets older there can be longer, supervised times out of the crate. The puppy will not feel like it is being punished while in the crate. Dogs actually like their own space and will seek out the crate to rest and relax. The crate also provides safety when you are not home to supervise. It also is invaluable when traveling. You may need to buy a small crate and graduate to a larger size, or if you purchase a large crate you will need to block off a part while the pup is small. You may leave a blanket or towel in the crate, but be careful the pup doesn't chew it. Water needs to be left in the crate if the pup will be in there more than one hour. Your veterinarian can provide you with the specific information you need to use crate training based on your lifestyle. Crate training is a great way to help your puppy grow up into a happy, house-broken dog.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My dog is a great companion and he has become a great addition to our family and playmate to our children. The only problem is that he does a lot of barking. He barks when the doorbell rings, when the garage door opens, and when people are walking past the house. It seems as though he barks too often. What can I do to stop all of the noise?

Dear Pet Owner:
Some of the barking that your dog is doing is instinctive and he feels it is the right thing to do. Most dogs are protective of their homes. Don't you want him to tell you when a stranger is at the door? However, if he is barking at every noise, you may need to teach him which noises are o.k. to ignore and which ones represent danger. This is going to take some training and it may take a little time. First, consider the whole dog. If this is a young dog, be sure to have him neutered. Unneutered and unspayed dogs are often more territorial than spayed and neutered ones. Let's “fix” that problem first. Then, if your dog's vaccinations are up to date and he's in good health, it's time for socialization. Dog training classes are a good way to introduce your dog to lots of other people and their dogs. It's a lot safer for both of you to start socialization in a controlled setting, rather than taking your socially naïve dog to the park where other dogs may not be on leashes and there is more potential for trouble. If you've already tried training classes and you've practiced all those sit-stay-good dog routines and he's still barking at too many things, you need to call your veterinarian. Sometimes there are medical reasons and medical treatment for excessive behaviors.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
One of my cats, Reggie, has recently started urinating outside the litterbox. My carpets now smell terribly and I am getting very frustrated. Is he doing this out of spite or is there something wrong with him?

Dear Pet Owner:
Inappropriate urination is perhaps the most common behavioral problem of cats and can occur for many reasons. Before this becomes a habit for Reggie, the first thing you should do is have your veterinarian rule out a medical cause that may need attention. Such medical conditions may include: urinary tract problems (infection, bladder stones, urinary crystals, cystitis), hyperthyroidism, and diabetes. If there is a problem that is not corrected right away, cats may continue to still urinate outside of the box after treatment because it is now a learned behavior preference for them. Once medical problems are ruled out, behavioral causes should be investigated. Some cats prefer certain locations (example: the bedroom or living room) or certain substrates (ex: carpeting or bathroom tile). Likewise, some cats do not go in their litterbox because they don't like the location of their box (ex: is it in a noisy, high-traffic area?) or the substrate (ex: they don't like scented clumping litter vs. clay litter). Another common reason is that some cats may be displaying "marking" behavior. This may include spraying small amounts of urine in similar spots (especially vertical surfaces). In these situations, cats usually continue to use the litterbox for urinating and defecating. Lastly, many cats urinate inappropriately because of stress or anxiety. This is a very common cause for cats in multi-cat households that are eliciting aggression towards another cat. To prevent Reggie from urinating all over the carpets, there are many things you can try. If possible, keep him out of the areas where he urinates or make those areas aversive by feeding him in those spots or placing aluminum foil or sticky tape over those locations. Secondly, make the litter more attractive. The litter box should be totally cleaned out every 3-4 days, and the feces scooped out daily. Do not use smelly cleaners like ammonia that may be offensive to cats. Also, there should be enough litter boxes in the house to equal the number of cats you have PLUS one. Try putting out different types of litter (clay, sand, clumping, unscented) as well as different types of boxes (shallow/deep, covered/uncovered). Finally, if anxiety is the cause, Reggie may benefit from medication in addition to behavioral exercises. Your veterinarian will help decide if this is necessary.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
When my dog is in the house, he wants out. After he's outside for awhile, he wants to come back inside and be with me. Why does he do this?

Dear Pet Owner:
There can be many reasons why your dog can't seem to make up his mind. Your veterinarian should help you rule out causes that need medical treatment. Your pooch may have a bladder infection or bladder stones. These problems can cause an urge to urinate and a well-trained dog will constantly ask to go out rather than risk an accident in the living quarters. Similarly, he may have colitis, a large intestine irritation that makes him feel the need to frequently move his bowels. Your pup may also be producing an excessive amount of urine that he must release. Causes range from diabetes to diseases of the kidney, liver, adrenal glands or cancer. Your veterinarian will perform a careful physical exam and may examine urine and stool samples as well as take blood tests and x-rays. Older dogs may suffer from deteriorating brain facilities, sometimes called cognitive dysfunction. This condition causes forgetfulness and confusion, leading dogs to stand in corners, stare blankly, and often ask to go in and out repetitively. New diets and medications are being researched to help treat this frustrating late life problem.

Medically healthy dogs may pester their owners in an attempt to play, seek attention or relieve boredom. You can treat your canine companion to hard rubber chew toys stuffed with tasty snacks. This may offer your pet a different form of entertainment rather than watching you get off the couch again and again. Teaching your dog to obey a variety of commands may also alleviate this annoying behavior. Making your pup listen and perform for a praise, treat, or gentle stroke on the head is not only stimulating to him, but also subtly teaches that the owner makes the demands and not the pet. If you must let your pooch in and out more often than the norm, do it without fuss or fanfare. Even words of complaint can encourage the behavior. Finally, if all else fails, installing a two-way doggy door may satisfy pet and person.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My dear old cat, Petunia has recently started howling at night. I love her but I really need my sleep. She was spayed at 6 months. Could she possibly be in heat again? How can I make her stop?

Dear Pet Owner:
I get questions from my clients about howling old felines quite frequently. Is Petunia acting normal otherwise? Is she using her litter box? Can she see? Make as many observations as possible (I know it's tough at 3 in the morning) as to what she is up to. Is she looking for food, her litter box, does she appear lost, or is she just out for a stroll around the house? Put together your observations to help your veterinarian formulate a diagnosis. There are a few causes for howling that come to mind: 1) urinary or bowel discomfort: If your cat has cystitis or lower urinary disease, has diarrhea or is constipated the discomfort can cause howling. 2) distress over getting to the litter box or food caused by arthritis: A lot of old cats are arthritic and find the ordeal of climbing down that long flight of stairs to the basement litter box quite a chore. 3) hyperthyroidism: A very common disease in old cats easily diagnosed and treated. Hyperthyroid cats are over-active, edgy, and often can't sleep! 4) blindness: whether suddenly or slowly developed can be confusing for our feline friends. Blindness in old cats is often caused by hypertension which should be diagnosed and treated immediately. 5) senility: cats that have normal physicals and test results are labeled “senile”. Clearly this is an area that needs research, but there are some new experimental medications that can be helpful for “senile cats”. Good luck with Petunia.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
We adopted a 6-month-old cat from an animal orphanage. We were able to hold her as she came out of the cage and she was fine. Now that we have her home, she runs away from us and we cannot pet or hold her. Our veterinarian said she is healthy. Do you have any tips so that we can enjoy playing and petting her?

Dear Pet Owner:
I know that you want to display your love and affection toward your new family member, but some cats take a while to "warm up" to a new situation. The best advice is to be patient and let her come to you on her own terms. A few things that might help the two of you bond include finding a game she likes to play such as chasing a string, and playing this game with her. You might also consider feeding her a special treat while holding her food bowl or placing the food bowl near you and gently petting her while she eats. Take the time to approach her when the house is quiet and calm or simply sit in a room with her and let her come to you.

Remember that your cat is getting used to a new environment and is still unsure of her surroundings. Depending on her background, she may not be used to a lot of human contact and will need to learn how to trust and form a bond with a human. Most cat lovers who have found themselves in a similar situation happily report that with a little patience, their new friend has learned to be loved.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I like to take one of my dogs with me to 4th of July celebrations. She really seems to like watching the fireworks! My other dog absolutely hates the sound. Is there anything I should know to help her?

Dear Pet Owner:
The best idea is to keep your pet indoors during firework celebrations. Pets who are afraid of the sounds associated with firecrackers will feel safer if they are indoors in a familiar environment. Try to distract your pet with toys, food, and playtime. If this does not help, follow these precautions:

Keep Your Pet Leashed – a frightened pet may try to run away and end up in traffic, resulting in severe injuries if hit by a car, so make sure you are holding onto your pet.

Check Status of Pet's ID Tag – Should your pet escape, it's important that your pet is wearing identification tags with up-to-date information. This will help authorities return your pet to you.

Never Leave Your Pet in the Car – The temperature in a vehicle, even with the windows rolled down, can be deadly. It's also not a good idea to leave a frightened pet alone.

Reassure Your Pet – Stroke your pet gently and talk in a reassuring voice to help calm your frightened friend.

Avoid Bathroom Accidents – Out of fear, your pet may have an “accident” once the sounds of fireworks begin. Walk your pet before the celebrations begin to encourage the emptying of the bladder and bowels.

Avoid Fire Hazards – Being too close to the flames that ignite sparklers and other small fireworks can singe your pet's fur, resulting in nasty burns.

Consider Tranquilizers – Pets who suffer from chronic anxiety in response to thunderstorms, fireworks displays, and other loud noises may benefit from a prescription of tranquilizers. Some pets will adopt behaviors such as excessive licking or hair-pulling as a response to stress. Consult your veterinarian for more information.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I recently adopted a dog from the pound. He is a great companion except when I leave him alone. He destroys newspapers and the pillows on my couch. Once I get home, he is fine. Should I crate him during the day?

Dear Pet Owner:
Separation Anxiety can occur in any dog, but more commonly can happen in a dog who has a new home after being in a pound or kennel. They start to feel distress because the owner is not there. Perhaps they are worried they will be going back to the kennel. No one quite knows exactly what they think but you can certainly see the results of this distress with the destructive behavior placed on your newspaper and pillows. Desensitization and counterconditioning to let the dog get used to being alone without stressing can help alleviate the destructive behavior. You may start by leaving the dog alone for short periods of time to get him used to you being gone. Then slowly increase the amount of time you are gone. Praise him when he behaves and only scold the bad behavior at that moment it happens (the chewing). You may have to spy on your dog and interrupt him right when he starts to chew. Any scolding after the incidence will not help. Different antianxiety medications such as amitriptyline, megestrol acetate, or clomipramine can help along with the training. Your veterinarian can assist you further as this training can be extensive. A small room or a “puppy proof” room is probably better than a crate since a lot of dogs may hurt themselves trying to escape from the crate.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I recently caught my three-year-old female cat, Prissy, lifting her tail and urinating on my den wall. She has a litter box that I clean twice a day. Why is she doing this and how can I stop her? I thought only male cats sprayed urine.

Dear Pet Owner:
Cats usually seek out their litter box to deposit their waste but occasionally, they are motivated to use a spot not approved by their owners. A bladder irritation, a new brand of litter, a dirty pan or a limited access to the box may trigger this behavior. A cat that stands with a lifted tail and sprays urine horizontally against a wall is exhibiting urine marking. This is a behavioral action responding to stress. If there are other animals at home, make sure they are calmly co-existing. You may have to set up a video camera in the room to confirm behavior when you are away from home. Male cats that have not been neutered are notorious for spraying, but felines in heat are also apt to mark territory in this fashion. May sure your female cat has been spayed! Also, an outside animal may appear and aggravate your cat to the point of spraying near a door or window. Scout your yard for unwelcome strays.

Even if you have discovered and corrected the source of your cat's stress, you may still need behavior counseling by your veterinarian. In addition to advice on promoting a tranquil environment, your veterinarian can supply you with solutions to neutralize urine stains and odors, calming medications, and even a hormone room freshener that often changes your cat's urge to spray into an acceptable desire to rub her cheek against the offended wall instead.

Your cat is not spraying to punish you. She is trying to cope with a stress she perceives in her daily routine. With your veterinarian's help, you can correct this situation and get that urine back in the litter box where it belongs.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My Sheltie is terrified of thunderstorms and hides in the closet until they are over. I usually get up in the middle of the night and stay with him because I feel so bad. Why is he so afraid and how can I help him better deal with this fear?

Dear Pet Owner:
Dogs have different personalities just as people do. Some dogs do not understand what thunder is and get afraid from the loud and deep sound of it. Why this happens in some dogs and not in others is still a mystery. Perhaps during his puppyhood, an event affected his attitude. Most likely this behavior is based in the dog's genes. Training using counterconditioning and desensitization may be needed to help him calm down before and during these storms. You can assure him in a soft and gentle voice when he starts to tremble and when he seems to calm down a little reward him with a “good boy” or a treat. You should be calm in order to calm down your dog. Also you can make your dog do something different like walking or eating when he starts to tremble to get his mind off of his fear. You can also start with soft sounds and get him used to louder sounds without evoking an anxiety response. These types of training take time and patience. A dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist can go into further detail. Your veterinarian can help with other training tips and also can prescribe medications to assist with this. Different types of tranquilizers can be used during storms to make the dog calmer. Valium is an effective drug that helps many dogs with this issue. Ace promazine and/or Clomipramine are other alternative medications. Every case is different and must be handled as such. In general a combination of training and medication gives the best result in controlling extreme anxiety during storms. Most likely your dog will never be “cured” but certain treatments can be done to alleviate the signs of distress.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
Our 3-year-old cat is a compulsive groomer, especially on her stomach and inside legs. She has been tested for mites, has no fleas and is healthy. She has most of her hair gone on her stomach, yet doesn't seem to have much trouble with hair balls. She is an indoor cat. Can you explain why she is doing this?

Dear Pet Owner:
Your cat has a grooming disorder where she is licking herself excessively to the point she is losing hair on her stomach. Your vet has to rule out a disease process, a dermatological process or a behavior issue called displacement activity. A physical exam, blood tests including a thyroid profile and a urine sample to be complete would be a good starting point. Then the skin can be examined further by taking skin scrapings, checking for fleas, lice or ticks, culturing for ringworm, looking for dermatitis and possibly doing a skin biopsy. Skin testing for allergies can be very helpful to rule out an allergic cause. Look in her environment to see if any rug, mat or bedding upon which she lays may be giving her a contact allergy. A steroid injection can be given to treat symptomatically for an allergic cause.

If, however, all of these tests are normal or there is no response to corticosteroid use, then a behavior issue is present. Your cat may be in a prolonged conflict or in an anxiety-provoking situation, which causes her to self mutilate (displacement activity). Look at her history to see if there is anything stressful where she lives that could upset her. Are there conflicts with other cats or dogs? Has there been a great change at home? Which strangers and which strange noises is she afraid of? All different seemingly “normal” things to us can be a stress to a cat. The cause of the stress should be eliminated if possible or the environment changed to keep that cat out of that situation. Anti-anxiety medications such as Elavil, Valium or Chlorpheniramine may help in these cases.

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