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Five Common Questions That Pet Owners Ask Behaviorists, Answered

They explain why body language is the key to better understanding animals.

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Photography by: Tetra Images/Getty

Animal behaviorists evaluate and treat the underlying causes of animal behavior. While trainers can help you to train your puppy (or kitten) to follow commands and do tricks, a behaviorist also has the ability to diagnose medical conditions. "Behavior vets are the psychiatry branch of veterinary medicine," explains Dr. Andrea Tu, DVM, medical director at Behavior Vets of NYC and a member of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. "Trainers can provide talk therapy for your pets but are not able to prescribe medications."

 

You would go to a behavior vet or pet behaviorist if your animal has a sudden change in behavior that does not respond very well to any of your training methods. An underlying medical cause—either physical or mental—could be the reason for the behavioral change. Behavior vets are specially trained veterinarians that can identify the various causes of behavior and address both the medical cause and the behavior itself. "Dogs and cats have only so many ways they can express themselves, either because of they way they are housed or because of their cognition and morphology," says Dr. Victoria Cussen, director of research for the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. "So, what the behavior looks like—it's 'topography'—may be the same between animals but the causes of or responses to the behavior—its 'antecedents' and 'consequences'—may be different." So, the answers to many behavior questions are going to be individual to the animal. Pet behaviorists take a holistic view to determine the causes behind the behavior and any of its triggers. One that has an underlying medical cause, for example, needs to have the medical issue addressed before the behavior can be modified.

 

RELATED: All of Your Pet's Most Confusing Behaviors, Explained

 

What do pet behaviorists and behavior vets treat?

Both Dr. Tu and Dr. Cussen agree that the main concerns people have about their animals, and the most common reasons for why people bring their animals to pet behaviorists, are the following: aggression, separation anxiety, destructive behavior, and leash-reactivity. Cats and dogs can also experience severe fear and anxiety. And Dr. Tu has worked with many canine patients who suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of going outside, due to noise sensitivity or noise phobias. "Nationwide, this is a big one for dogs," Dr. Tu says. "Loud thunderstorms, cars, fireworks, and the sounds of the city can seem very frightening to dogs, and hiding from the noise doesn't make [the noise] go away. This can cause anxiety for the dog." Pet behaviorists will look for medical and psychological reasons behind the behavior and work with you on a treatment plan to help your pet to overcome their fear and anxiety.

 

How can I understand my pet better?

If watching shows on Animal Planet has taught us anything, it's that we need to learn how to understand our animals much better than we do. "The best way to understand your pet is to become familiar with animal body language. Research shows the typical owner is good at noticing extreme signs of stress or fear, but less able to detect more subtle indicators," explains Dr. Cussen. "It is easiest to alter behavior before the animal reaches the point of showing more obvious signs, so detecting problem areas early on can be super helpful." For example, many animals associate staring in their eyes as a sign of aggression and will respond to what they perceive as a threat. Cats may show us their bellies when they trust us, but it isn't always an invitation for a belly rub. Learn what certain nonverbal cues mean to your pet. The good news is that there are plenty of books on the subject.

 

How can I get my dog to stop digging under the fence?

Dogs enjoy digging in the ground. But what if your dog is obsessively digging under the fence or makes a mess of the garden? You would need to find out why your dog is digging in these areas. If there is a neighbor's dog who visits on a regular basis or a hot dog truck that parks right in front of your fence, you may only need to add some physical barriers to prevent your dog from digging in those areas. It's also a good idea to make your landscape more dog-friendly by incorporating approved digging spots like sandboxes, where you can hide goodies like a Kong toy filled with treats or a chewy rawhide. But what if none of those things work? Amanda Eick, RVT, KPA CTP, VTS, practice manager at The Behavior Clinic in Northeast Ohio, recommended speaking to your veterinarian or a behavior veterinarian who can look for whether a medical or psychological reason is behind the digging. It's not a one-answer-fits-all and may require some serious sleuthing to get to the bottom of it.

 

How do pet behaviorists treat phobias and anxiety disorders?

Phobias develop over time as the animal associates certain triggers with the thing that causes their fear. "When treating phobias, we usually follow a three-fold plan: management and safety, behavior modification, and medications," Dr. Tu says. The management and safety step involves identifying the triggers and the pet's reactions and ensuring that the animal is safe. Behavior vets also look for underlying medical causes for the responses that the animal has for particular stimuli. Behavior modification includes training and working with the animal to lessen the anxiety. And sometimes, our animals need medications to make the process less stressful for the animal. "Medications can be long or short term," says Dr. Tu. "With medications, talk therapy and behavior modification, your pet may not need to stay on the medication forever." For example, if pain is the reason for the behavior, treating the underlying pain often eliminates the undesired behavior.

 

How can I get my cat to stop scratching the furniture?

Cats protect themselves with their claws. Like their larger and wilder counterparts, household cats also need to keep their claws trimmed and sharpened. They do this by scratching on surfaces. Lions will use tree trunks. But our cats might use the sofa if they don't have an alternative. Marilyn Krieger—a certified cat behavior consultant at The Cat Coach and author of Naughty No More!—explained to us in a previous interview that scratching is a natural behavior that you can address without discouraging it completely. Protect your furniture with double-sided tape or a sheet and place scratching posts and corrugated scratching boards in front of the furniture. Positive reinforcement for scratching appropriate scratchers also goes a long way. "You let the cat know that they are scratching what you want them to scratch," she told us. "Give the cat whatever the cat likes: praise, petting, or treats. Clicker training can work well with this." Declawing your cat is not the answer because it can cause other problems for the cat.