Effective Help for Behavior Problems in Dogs and Cats

By Dr. Amy L. Pike, DVM, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Does your dog growl or bark at your visitors? Has he attacked other dogs at the local dog park? Has he been attacked himself and is now terrified of other dogs? Does your cat urinate or defecate outside of the litter box? Does she attack you every morning at 4 a.m. when you roll over in bed? You are not alone.

Behavior continues to be the number one reason pets are relinquished to animal shelters, and veterinary clinics lose 15 percent of their patient population each year due to behavior problems. Aggression is the top cited complaint for dogs. Urination outside of the litter box is the top reason given for cats.

What Is Causing My Pet’s Bad Behavior?

Animals with behavior problems are often thought of as naughty, unruly, or stubborn. However, behavior problems are much more complex.

  • First, there may be a physical or medical problem, as in the case of pain causing aggression or kidney disease causing house soiling. When your pet is experiencing a behavior problem, you should visit your veterinarian for a full physical examination and diagnostics including blood work, analysis of a urine sample, and other tests that are deemed necessary.
  • Next, consider that the pet may be responding to inconsistent interactions with those around them. Pets thrive on structure and predictability—without that they may become anxious or use aggression to feel more in control of a situation.
  • Lack of socialization can be a component in many common behavior problems. The dog found as a stray on the street may never have been socialized to interactions with other dogs, men in hats, or children. A vacuum cleaner may be foreign and scary to a dog that has never seen one before, leading the dog to flee into the bedroom when the vacuum appears on cleaning day.

Who can help me with my pet’s behavior problem?

After seeing your regular veterinarian, where should you turn for help? That depends on the behavior problem you are experiencing with your pet.

A skilled dog trainer can help with nuisance behaviors such as jumping, pulling on the leash on walks, and not coming when called. It is important that you only use trainers who employ positive reinforcement-based, force-free, and non-aversive techniques and tools. There should be absolutely no punishment, no electronic shock collars (also known as “stim” collars or e-collars), and no prong or choke collars. These techniques and tools can increase and even cause fear, anxiety, and aggression. In addition, they can put their owner in danger of being the target of aggression. In many parts of the world, these training techniques are considered inhumane and have been banned.

When the behavior problem goes beyond just obedience and involves a neurochemical imbalance, a medical condition, learned fearful associations, or aggression of any form, you should schedule a consultation with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. The following is a list of the problems that a veterinary behaviorist treats:

  • Aggression
  • Urination or defecation problems
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Thunderstorm sensitivities or phobias
  • Other noise sensitivities or phobias
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Over grooming
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
  • Behavioral anorexia
  • Separation anxiety
  • Cognitive dysfunction


the photo very agressive cat scottish-straight on dark blue background

What is a veterinary behaviorist?

Veterinary behaviorists are first and foremost veterinarians. Beyond their veterinary medical degree, they have completed a three-year residency program in veterinary behavioral medicine. During their residency they see a minimum of 400 new clients and patients, conduct and author a research project and publication in the field, write and pass their required case reports, and pass a two-day (16-hour) examination. For more information about the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, please visit www.dacvb.org.

How will a veterinary behaviorist help my pet?

First, a veterinary behaviorist works with your regular veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying or contributing medical cause and if any additional diagnostics are warranted. Next, a veterinary behaviorist identifies the diagnosis of the behavior problem(s) that drives the development of a treatment plan.

In the initial phases of treatment, it is important to stop the practice of the problematic behavior so a comprehensive management and avoidance protocol are implemented. The latter stages of treatment focus on teaching the pet alternate behaviors and desensitizing them to, and changing the way they feel about, their behavioral triggers through the use of classical and operant counterconditioning. Also, veterinary behaviorists discuss the prognosis of treatment based on the specific characteristics of the pet, the history of the behavioral episodes, the family composition, and the environment in which the pet lives.

Does my pet need medication?

Not all behavior problems warrant medication intervention. However, as medical practitioners, veterinary behaviorists are the only ones with the education and capability to prescribe products such as pheromones, supplements, and other medications that can help alleviate the underlying fear and anxiety driving many of the problems listed in this article.

If products or medication are prescribed, they will not be a cure-all. They will help decrease the intensity and frequency of the behavior, increase the patient’s capability to recover after a reaction, and facilitate the learning of a new behavior. No one can learn when they are highly aroused. Until that arousal and anxiety is alleviated, there cannot be any change.

How long will it take to treat my pet’s behavior problem?

The longer a behavior problem has gone on, the more difficult it will be to treat it. It is imperative to seek treatment at the first sign of concern. Delaying treatment to see if it will just go away is not advisable as most behavior problems get worse over time when left untreated.

Don’t let your beloved four-legged family member become another statistic. Get the proper care they need promptly to address and resolve their behavior problems.

About the Author:

Dr. Amy Pike is chief of the Behavior Medicine Division at the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia in Manassas where she sees referral behavior cases. One of less than 70 board-certified veterinary behaviorists in North America, Dr. Pike is a clinical instructor for E-training for Dogs (an online education system), a member of the Fear Free Advisory Committee, and a member of the editorial advisory board of American Veterinarian. She has educated veterinary audiences worldwide about behavioral medicine. Recently she was named one of the top veterinarians of Northern Virginia by Northern Virginia magazine. Dr. Pike, formerly a captain in the United States Army Veterinary Corps, has worked with military working dogs returning from deployment. She is a graduate of Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

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