Love to love ya, baby…
From starting puppies and kittens on the right paw to the special needs of our gracefully aging super seniors, we have many behaviors that are familiar and others that aren’t as recognizable. Some of these behaviors are stress-driven, some are medical challenges, and others are environmentally influenced. Introducing new additions into the family – both the furry kind or the two-legged kid kind can change the dynamic leading to successful interactions or, in some cases, problem behaviors. Dogs and cats speak a different language than we do and sometimes it’s just so hard to figure out what they are telling us, but they are trying! We speak “human” and they speak dog or cat or rabbit or ferret… you get the idea. Many times we think that our pets are spiteful when in fact they are anxious – even if they do look like they know they did something wrong (they’re actually reacting to our reaction at seeing something wrong as well as knowing something is wrong but they really did not do it intentionally).
The first 4-13 weeks of a puppy or kitten’s life experience is a very special window of opportunity for learning and socialization. Some stressful events include housetraining and litter box training, new environment/home, new people, other household pets, new rules, new experiences and being separated from their littermates and mothers, as well as visits to the veterinarian which are frequent during the formative months. Most puppies and many kittens will benefit from group play dates, training classes, and frequent handling.
After the socialization period comes the “teenage years” of social and sexual maturity. This is thought to occur between 6 months and 2 years of age. During this time, there is continual learning and pets are proving their social status in the household. While juveniles are still learning, they are easily distracted and find it hard to keep focused. They need plenty of stimulation and opportunities to learn and test their environments. Chewing, play biting, body handling, food and toy handling, crate training/litter box use are all part of this life stage. It is important for pet parents to understand that dogs and cats have four legs and a mouth so many things get “taste tested’ and that can get them into a lot of trouble. Then there is the added teething time which occurs during 4-7 months in most breeds. Watch out for those sharp needle teeth!!!
Middle age should be a relatively enjoyable stable time with schedules and routines established. Should there be a change, however, our pets may have trouble adjusting. They may show us their feelings through such things as separation anxiety, fears and phobias, house soiling, ingestion behaviors (dietary indiscretion, eating poop, fabric licking), aggression, out of context behaviors, and vocalizations. These behaviors can add to our own anxiety about our pets. But there is help!
Our beloved senior pets can develop behaviors that are directly related to aging and certain structural or metabolic conditions. There are even some pets who exhibit dementia and forgetfulness leading to loss of training and skill. This type of change can be the most heartbreaking because we see the decline and less-than-graceful aging process.
To address the issues that occur during each life stage, we must first identify if the behavior problem is perceived and/or real and then take steps to manage it. Management starts with a detailed history, both in written and question forms, to elicit a discussion with all family members involved in the behavior and the correction or modification of it. Everyone has to be on the same page for the most benefit. When the rules change, the behaviors change so consistency is important. Most of the time, behaviors have to change both at the pet level and the person level to have the most rewarding outcome. We may use additional exercises for relaxation and incorporate aromatherapy or pheromones (Feliway® for cats and D.A.P.® dog appeasing pheromones for dogs), and other natural pet relaxants. There are cases where actual mood altering and fear reducing medications are necessary.
Sometimes we need the help of behavior specialists, and again we are fortunate to have local resources for these patients. So no matter the age, or the problem behavior, a medical evaluation followed by a behavior history can help us prepare a plan for the management and modification of the unwanted behavior.