Behavioral Problems – Tricky, Tricky

There are many behavioral problems that our pets can suffer from.  These can be something as simple (only in comparison to others) as separation anxiety in a dog, inappropriate urination in a cat, or as complex as feather picking in a bird.  Most behavioral problems can be tricky for the simple reason that there isn’t always a clear-cut answer.  They can be so frustrating for this simple reason.  Millions of pets are surrendered/abandoned every year because of some sort of behavioral problem.

The purpose of this blog isn’t to go into any type of exhaustive detail about different behavioral problems and their solutions.  That would take way too long and there are too many behavioral problems out there that I am simply not qualified to help with.  I want to, instead, use this as a starting point for anyone with a pet that has behavioral problems.  You’ve acquired the pet, and it deserves to have at least a chance at getting better.

Blue and Gold Macaw

Please be prepared.  Behavioral problems can be expensive.  Just like anything that has to do with pet medicine, you should be setting aside a separate source of funding for preventative measures, emergencies and elective procedures (dental cleanings, spay/neuter) so that if something like this arises, you are able to cope with it.  Pet ownership nowadays isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

Step One:

Seek professional counseling.  I know this isn’t what a lot of you want to hear, but there are a lot of “behavioral problems” that can be caused by medical issues.  With any type of urinary issue, you want to rule out any type of infection.  When dogs are in pain they can manifest different behavioral symptoms.  Birds are a whole other complex can of worms.  Since they are creatures of prey, they tend to hide their symptoms.  So a bird that has any type of a behavioral issue needs a veterinary consult as soon as you notice the abnormality.

All of the behavioral counselling the world isn’t going to help a pet who is suffering from a medical condition that is causing the issue.

Step Two: 

Once they have been cleared of any medical abnormalities, there are a variety of enrichment options that can help some behavioral issues.  For a dog or a cat, ask yourself if your pet is getting adequate exercise.  If you relate it to a person, it becomes very clear.  I’d go stir crazy too if all I did was stay in one place my entire life, my glimpses of the outdoors limited to potty breaks.

Dogs need exercise.  All dogs.  Even those that are considered “low exercise.”  Exercise can be anything from tossing a ball in the backyard, to walks on a leash or dog parks. They also need enrichment.  Enrichment is different from physical exercise because it doesn’t have to be physical.  It mostly encompasses stimulation of the mind.  For dogs, it can be something like chewing a treat-stuffed KONG toy.  Or engaging them in a game.

Indoor cats really benefit from exercise.  If you are unable to install shelves that your cat can specifically use for their own leisure, doing things like placing their food bowl on a raised area gives them some exercise as they jump to chow down.  Laser-light pointers can engage their stalking/hunting mode and give them a little of enrichment and exercise.  Cats are hunters, so anything that can mimic their hunting instinct is going to prove beneficial.  I haven’t read her book yet, but I’m excited to see what The Cat Coach has to say about feline behavior since cats can be tricky. :)

For cats and dogs there is a pheromone out there that I must mention.  This is something that you would consult your veterinarian about whether or not it is appropriate.  The one for dogs is called Adaptil.  The one for cats is called Feliway.  The pheromone’s mimic those produced to bring comfort to the pet.

For pets that are slightly less conventional like birds or ferrets, enrichment is going to be pivotal.  Almost anything that doesn’t scare your bird is fair game.  Birds are social and most are very intelligent.  Visual enrichment can be things like balloons, the television, a bird feeder outside of a window (good for cats too).  There are a variety of foraging toys (if you don’t know what this is, look into it!  It’ll need to be another blog post, lol) out there and can also be home-made.  Anything that is safe that the bird can tear up will give them some enrichment.  A lot of companion birds can be trained.  An excellent trainer who has a lot of youtube videos and books out is Barbara Heidenreich.

Ferrets like to burrow and are very curious.  Giving them (in a controlled setting since their curiosity can get them into trouble when not monitored) opportunities to explore new areas or materials to burrow will be good for them too.  Care must be taken since ferrets often enjoy ingesting materials they shouldn’t.

Step Three:

Another reason why it is good to clear any behavioral issues with your veterinarian is that they will be able to tell you if an issue warrants outside counseling, or a behavioralist.     Extra care must be taken when choosing a professional to work with.  They are often expensive and there isn’t enough regulation out there on who can call themselves a “trainer” or a “behavioralist.”  The wrong kind of training can make a behavioral issue worse.  I would take strict recommendations only and ask questions about the methods they use.  They should be open with their methods and should always include a home-plan for you to follow since behavior modification never works without owner contributions.

Investing in a trained professional is a time and money commitment and most can’t give you 100% guarantees, which can be frustrating.  They should, however, be able to tell you how many pets they’ve seen with whatever behavioral problem you are trying to confront and what their success rate is with these problems.  A good professional will be honest with you because they are going to  be in this whole profession to -help- pets.

If you are in the Houston Area, Dr. Lori Haug is awesome.  It helps if they are board certified.  There aren’t many out there, only 52.*

I hope this helps those of you who are confronting a behavioral issue and don’t really know where to start.  They can be extensive, but I’ve seen a lot of pets successfully rehabilitated once their problem was identified and their owners committed to helping.


*I got this number from Dr. Haug’s website.

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