Here at St. Louis on the Air, we love our pets, we really do. Yet sometimes, oh yes, sometimes, their behavior is absolutely confounding. Why do you hate the mailman so, Fido? Why won’t you go to the bathroom in the litter box, Jingles? Why won’t you let me hug my boyfriend, Buck? There are so many questions.
Luckily, Dr. Debra Horwitz, DVM, sees these kinds of issues all the time. A veterinary behaviorist with Veterinary Behavior Consultations, she assures us there are ways you can get to the bottom and help pets get over their peccadillos.
She says that about 90 percent of pet owners have some sort of problem with their pets’ behavior. For dogs, the behavioral issues generally reported deal with aggression. For cats, the behavioral issues reported are often about house soiling.
“There are abnormal behaviors that are real problematic and then there are normal, but unwanted, behaviors,” said Horwitz. “You have to spend time teaching a pet the behavior you want instead of punishing what you don’t.”
Here are the five types of questions we got about animal behavior during our 30-minute segment, which brought in over 20 calls, emails and tweets on the subject.
My cat is going to the bathroom on the [dining room rug, bed, next to the litter box], how can I change that behavior?
“When we’re talking about cats, it is one of the most common problems. Contrary to what most of us believe, it is not being spiteful or mean, it is almost always about their toilet. Think of their litter box as the place they go to eliminate. Humans are particular about that. The first thing to look at is where the litter box is, how big it is, how much material is inside, how often do you scoop out the waste and how often do you empty, wash and replenish the litter box. There should be one box per cat in multiple locations.”
“Cats and dogs have different reasons for going to the bathroom in an unwanted place. When dogs eliminate indoors, there are two questions to ask: Is it happening when I’m home? Is it happening when I’m gone? Those who eliminate when you’re gone, may have separation anxiety or fear. Dogs that eliminate when you’re home may not have adequate house training. Dogs eliminate most commonly after eating and drinking. If you’re having a house-only problem, feed the animal only twice a day. Twenty or thirty minutes after they eat, take them outside. Go outside with them and when they go to the bathroom, reward them. You want to reward “do it here, do it now.” Don’t reward them back in the house.”
My dog doesn’t like the mailman. How do I get him/her to stop barking at him all the time?
“One of the things that dogs learn when they bark out the window is that the person usually goes away. They don’t realize the person was going to go away anyway. When something stays that makes them work harder. The mailman stays, he or she makes noise or puts things into the house. The dog may find that problematic. If you have a mail slot that allows mail to come in, consider putting a box of treats next to the slot and ask the mailperson to drop in a treat with the mail. Now, the dog’s perception changes from ‘Oh my God! We’re all going to die’ to ‘Here comes cookies.’”
My dog won’t come inside when s/he is called, even with treats. What can I do?
“Many dogs don’t want to come inside when they are outside. There are many reasons why that is. The first is: coming inside ends fun. There are a certain subset of dogs that don’t come back inside when they perceive you are about to leave. They may be dogs that are experiencing separation anxiety. They can tell by all the cues that it is not a routine, perhaps the way you are dressed or the way you put your purse on the counter, it means they’re going to be alone, confined.
“One of the things you may want to do is to screen for separation anxiety. The way you do that is to set up a video camera where the dog normally spends his time, especially near the exit door.
“You can get a robust recall if coming to you means good things. Start with short distances [rewarded with treats for coming inside] and once the dog will come inside at any distance, then you can start phasing out treats.”
My pets keep licking themselves. How do I get them to stop?
“There was a study that was done that looked at cats brought in for over-grooming and tried to figure out which ones were medical and which ones were behavioral. There were 22 cats in the study and by the end only 19 of 22 cats actually had a behavioral component the licking. Trying to figure out with cats, you have to do an extensive medical workup. … I would suggest going to a veterinary dermatologist.
“Dogs lick often because there is a lesion there, but if it is chronic, sometimes they lick because they are anxious about something going on in the house or they don’t have appropriate oral enrichment that satisfies their diet. … You might want to try a food dispensing toy so that [the dog] spends more time eating her food and that may satisfy her need to do something orally. Some of these dogs do have deep-seated infections or allergies that need to be treated year-round.
“We don’t really require our dogs to do an awful lot of thinking and sometimes dogs really like a lot of thinking. Puzzle enrichment toys for dogs can make dogs really happy to be mentally stimulated.”
My dog is jealous when I show affection to others. How can I stop aggressive behavior related to this?
“If something is good, an animal will want more. If there aren’t rules for when you get physical, social interaction and when you don’t…then why not try? It is somewhat like when you have a young child and you’re talking to your spouse, they suddenly have something they have to say. Social interaction is pleasurable."
One listener emailed asking about what she should do when the aggression is displayed toward a 7-year-old child.
“Dog bites are not a problem that should be taken lightly—they can be serious. The first thing I would suggest is dogs not be in close proximity when dealing with a child. Talk to your veterinarian, because that is something that should not go untreated.”
Have more questions? Listen in to the segment, where Dr. Horwitz addresses cats climbing on counter tops, aging pets, treating for training and more:
If you have further specific questions about animal behavior, Dr. Horwitz recommends getting in contact with her associate, Dr. Colleen Koch, a behavior resident at the Mizzou Veterinary Health Center in Wentzville, to arrange a consultation. Her phone number is 636-332-5041.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.