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Pets behaving badly

Living

The vet's view
Conal Finnerty

There are a myriad of behavioural problems in domestic animals, some of whom stand alone and others that over-lap (a pet displaying a number of behavioural problems at the same time), particularly in dogs who more over than cats or other pets, desire and sometime depend on human companionship/interaction.
These include, aggression, barking, destructive chewing, food guarding, howling, mounting activity, nipping and playbiting (in adults and puppies), separation anxiety and whining to name but a few.
As you can see, it would be impossible to address or touch on all of these behaviours in one article, so lets look at one of the more common behaviours that trouble pet owners today, that of separation anxiety. We will come back, in future articles, to a number of the other behavioural problems we are seeing more and more of with today’s pets and owners.
Separation anxiety is actually a broad term for a number of unwanted behaviours that dogs, and sometimes cats, can display either singularly or as a group of behaviours that include: destructiveness, urinate/defecate (beyond the parameters of house training issues), bark, howl, chew, dig or attempts at escape, drooling or showing signs of distress when witnessing their owner about to leave or soon after they leave.
It is triggered when animals are separated from their owners/guardians, the people they have bonded with and become attached to. Behaviours such as attempts to escape and destructiveness can be very intense and can sometime result in the animal injuring themselves, but their need to get out of a particular situation can override any pain they may have put themselves in.
How do these behaviours develop? There is no scientific evidence that shows why some animals develop these issues and others don’t but a number of possible factors may come into play, including: a change of owner/family member, changes in schedule, change of residence, some underlying medical problems such as neurological diseases, early learned behaviour by a new puppy etc. Boredom is a very common reason for abnormal behavioural development in animals as it is in humans.
So how do we as owners attempt to deal with and hopefully resolve separation anxiety issues for our pet? There are a number of strategies we can employ that can go a long way in alleviating separation anxiety for our pets:

Counterconditioning
This is where we replace the fear of us leaving and the associated anxiety for the dog with something good/fun, eg, giving the pet a toy with food inside that they enjoy and take time to get to

Desensitisation
This maybe needed for moderate to severe complex cases where we gradually, over a period of time (this can take weeks), begin to accustom our pet to being alone, starting with very short periods of alone time, increasing only when we see a positive result, ie, no signs of anxiety as discussed earlier

Medicating
Strictly only to be done under veterinary guidance, sometimes the use of medications and appeasing aids can help with severe cases. Some pets are so badly affected by separation that only by initially medicating them, can other means be tried

What not to do
Never punish or scold your pet for these behaviours. Anxiety behaviours are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses. Negative responses by owners have actually been shown in lots of cases to make these behaviours worse. Remember, plenty of exercise, providing distractions for your pet and proper initial counterconditioning and desensitization can prevent and minimise separation anxiety for you and your pet.

Veterinarian Conal Finnerty MRCVS practises at the Skeldale Vet Clinic in Ballinrobe and Belmullet. Follow the clinic on Facebook, or call 094 9541980 or 087 9185350 to make an appointment.

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