A Collection of Tuesday’s Pearls of Dog and Cat Behavior

Each Tuesday, a behavior-related “pearl” is posted on our Facebook page. Here is a collection of the pearls posted since August, 2011, when the page was launched. I will continue to post them here as well on each Tuesday, and hope you find them useful.

Keeping your cat indoors is lifesaving: it prevents injury from car accidents, injury or infections from other animals, and avoids the risk that your cat will get lost. But, because that indoor environment is your cat’s entire world, it is important to remember that cats need both physical and social enrichment, with places to hide, climb, scratch, and perch up high. Some cats also appreciate the option for quiet, alone time now and then.

If your fearful dog hesitates on a recall (“come”), there might be something about your body language intimidating her. If you are in a doorway calling your dog inside, try stepping aside to leave the doorway clear. It can also help to lower your body into a squat or to turn sideways so that you’re not facing your dog. Most important, have those high-value rewards ready.

A common misunderstanding is that dogs aggressive to strangers are protecting their owners. It’s more likely, though, that they are protecting themselves – and are more expressive about it when their owners are with them because the aggression is socially facilitated, as in “I’m more brave because you’re behind (or in front of) me!”.

Any dog and cat (and bird, rabbit and rat), no matter its age or breed, can be trained. The trick – no pun intended – is to find the right positive reinforcer and pace the learning to the individual animal. If your dog (or hedgehog…) seems to have a limited attention span, try shortening the sessions and changing up what you’re teaching.

If your dog or cat is older than 11 years or so, cognitive decline, failing vision or hearing, and chronic pain can get in the way of behaviors that had always seemed “easy”. For example, dogs might need guidance (cues, rewards) with bathroom walks in the yard, and cats will appreciate a low-sided litter box on the same floor where they eat, sleep, and spend most of their time.

A wagging tail does not always indicate that a dog is willing to be touched or even that he is friendly. Stiff wagging might even be part of a threat signal. Tail-wagging means simply that the dog is “engaged” and aware of whatever is in front of him. In context, although your dog greets you with a “full body” wag, he might acknowledge an unfamiliar person or dog with a guarded, stiff posture and a more stiffly moving tail.

If your dog is nervous around unfamiliar people, don’t expect her to take food from them. In many cases it is not a positive experience, even if she accepts the food (dogs can be ambivalent, too!). Instead, offer food from your own hand and keep her at a comfortable distance.

If a muzzle is needed for any reason, a basket muzzle is preferred to a sleeve-type muzzle because (1) it is more secure for bite prevention, (2) if fitted well it allows the dog to pant (and regulate his body temperature) and (3) treats can be given in and through the muzzle while it is being put on, and during the time it is needed. No matter the type, muzzled dogs should never be left unsupervised, and a muzzle should not be used during strenuous exercise.

If you live with multiple dogs, be sure to provide multiple resting places for them. Ideally there should be more resting spots, including beds and dog-friendly furniture, than there are dogs. Be aware that corner beds might be difficult to access if other dogs are lying – and staring – nearby.

A potential drug interaction that comes up often in behavioral medicine is that between tramadol, a commonly used opioid pain drug, and SSRIs such as fluoxetine (Reconcile or Prozac). Using the two together can increase the risk of seizures or serotonin syndrome and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Close monitoring or alternative therapies might be needed.

Cats enjoy vertical space in which to explore, rest and supervise your activities. Encourage your cat(s) to explore vertically by placing furniture strategically so that they can easily jump up and down. Cat trees are lovely, but a simple (secured) blanket on top of a bookcase can be as valuable.

Sometimes it’s necessary to tether a dog in your yard, campsite or other unfenced area. But if you choose to tie your dog to a fixed spot outdoors, consider the fact that tethered dogs are among the most likely to bite, especially reactive to the pedestrians, children, bicycles and others who pass by. Chains and ropes can break, and the dogs themselves can be injured. The moral? Never tether your dog for more than a few moments, and never when you aren’t there to supervise.

It’s known that children are the most frequent victims of reported dog bites. But did you know that the most common behavioral reasons for bites by familiar dogs (family pets) in a recent study were resources (like food or toys) and “friendly” interactions such as petting, hugging or kissing?

Do you have a dog who views the cat’s litter box as his snack bar? Try propping the door to the litter box room open with a long hook-and-eye. Just enough for your cat to come and go, but small enough to thwart the marauder.

Two things to consider when using food as positive reinforcement. First, pieces should be small enough to be swallowed without much munching – biscuits are too big! A good choice for dogs is Cheerios. Second, foods can be sorted by their value to the dog or cat. For example, for many dogs kibble is a “C” food, breakfast cereal a “B” food, and chicken or cheese an “A” food. “C” foods might be fine as a routine, but bring out those “A” foods for fearful animals or challenging tasks.

Does your dog “mount” people, other dogs or pillows? Although it might look sexual, or you’re told it is yet another sign of dominance, mounting is most often simply a displacement of anxiety or stress. Best response? Redirect your dog’s attention to a more straightforward activity, such as a fetch game.

Positive reinforcement does not have to be food or toys. It can take the form of a “life reward” — the opportunity to do something the dog wants to do. For example, sitting at the back door is reinforced when the door is opened — an opportunity to run and play in the yard. Life rewards are excellent tools for anyone living with a dog.

Do you suspect that your dog or cat is urinating in the house? An ultraviolet (UV) lamp, also known as a black light or Wood’s lamp, will reveal the glow of even dried urine spots. Wood’s lamps can be purchased at home supply or pet supply stores. (And while you’re cleaning and neutralizing those spots, consider the next step — figuring out why it’s happening!).

Pet owners committed to humane training methods should be aware of the euphemisms for shock collars. You might come across terms such as “training collar”, “e-collar”, “e-touch”, “stimulation”, “tap”, or even “clicker” used for these devices, now easily available on line or in large chain pet stores. Regardless of how they are marketed, shock collars work by causing pain and fear — and should be avoided. What are your thoughts?

Although the typical image of a urine-marking cat is of a male spraying urine against a vertical surface, keep in mind that even spayed female cats may urine mark, and marking by any cat may be on a flat surface (like a bed) rather than actual “spraying”. Urine marking in cats can be a frustrating problem, and often leads to rehoming or worse, but it is treatable!

Dog toys are often colored bright red. But did you know that dogs can’t see the color red? Contrary to the widespread belief that dogs are entirely colorblind, they do see colors, but their visual spectrum is limited to a “rainbow” of yellow, gray and blue. If your dog seems to run right past that new red, violet or green ball, this might explain why.

Many adult dogs are finding their new, forever homes through rescue from shelters or rescue groups. Being rehomed as adults, however, often means that they have special needs — and may be predisposed to separation anxiety or other kinds of social distress. Keeping this in mind can help ease the transition to their new home.

Have you heard someone suggest that low thyroid hormone levels are linked to aggression in dogs? It isn’t necessarily so. A recent study found no difference in thyroid hormone levels between aggressive (to owners) and non-aggressive dogs. More research is always needed, but this is a good example of the need for evidence to back claims. What are your thoughts?

Catnip has interesting effects on cats. But did you know that it rarely affects kittens under 3 months old, and that about 30% of cats are genetically insensitive to its active ingredient, Nepetalactone?

Is it unsafe to enroll puppies in training class? In a recent study, M.E. Stepita et al reported that appropriately vaccinated puppies attending socialization classes were at no greater risk of parvovirus infection than other puppies. www.avsabonline.org

Have you tried to clicker-train your pet but found they are scared of the clicker sound? An i-Click is quieter than a regular clicker. Better still, try clicking inside a pocket.

Even though punishment might inhibit “bad” behavior for a moment, it is likely to make a dog or cat more worried — not less — in the long-term, especially if the behavior is based in anxiety.

When two dogs in the household fight with each other, injuries can be severe, especially with females. It is not a good idea, therefore, to let dogs “fight it out”.

Teaching simple “tricks” using positive reinforcement (food) is a great way to add mental enrichment to your dog’s or cat’s day. Try to set a goal for one new task each month, just to keep it interesting.

Let’s talk about cats. Cats respond to positive reinforcement as well as any other species (including human) — but first you have to discover what works as positive reinforcement for your cat. It might be food, but then cats are more cautious and tentative about their food preferences. Try something new and offer small bits several times.

There is no legal requirement to feed dogs food only from a bowl! Try feeding at least some of each day’s food in puzzle/food toys or as rewards for training. Why waste such an important resource?

Dr. Jacqui Neilson, a veterinary behaviorist in Portland, OR, reported at the recent ACVB/AVSAB scientific meeting that she found that cats were just as likely to use a scented cat litter as they were a non-scented litter.

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