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Don't Blame Your Pet

"...death from behavior problems is the leading cause of pet mortality."

by Nicholas Dodman, Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of the books The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

When we think of pets, we tend to conjure up warm and friendly images: new puppies cavorting together, kittens playing with a ball of twine, a parakeet sitting on its owner's finger singing sweet nothings into its owner's ear, a faithful Retriever at its master's side. It's this warm and fuzzy side of pet ownership, plus the unconditional companionship that pets provide, that helps forge the strong bond that often exists between people and their pets. Unfortunately, though, there's another side to pet ownership that we don't hear so much about; what happens when pets do not live up to our expectations of them and the bond between the owner and the pet weakens or completely breaks down.

Behavior problems are almost invariably the reason behind this rift. Some owners simply suffer the adversity and soldier on. Others would seek help but do not know where to find it. Yet another group surrenders their pet to the local shelter or pound on the off chance that it will be adopted. This solves their problem with the pet—but not the pet's problem—and no one learns from the experience. There is an old Swedish proverb that says, "Some people make the same mistake a thousand times and call it experience." That certainly applies here, as some of the same owners simply obtain another pet and repeat the cycle of ignorance.

Many of the pets brought to shelters are surrendered there because of behavior problems that their owners believe to be permanent. Approximately 70 percent of these animals end up being "put to sleep," making death from behavior problems the leading cause of pet mortality, ahead of trauma and disease. It is estimated that between five and 10 million dogs and cats come to an untimely end in the nation's shelters and pounds each year - a veritable holocaust. To put these figures into perspective, at least three times as many dogs are destroyed annually because of behavior problems as die of cancer, another leading cause of death. With dogs and cats, the problems range from aggression and house soiling to fear and anxiety-based conditions, including various compulsive behaviors. A similar spectrum of conditions plagues small mammals, birds and even reptiles, although figures on the morbidity and mortality that these problems cause in these species is presently lacking.

So what causes these problems and what can be done about them? The cause, I am afraid to say, in one way or another is us, the pet owners and pet breeders. Many of the problems we experience with our pets are normal species-typical behaviors that are inconvenient for us or occur in an inappropriate setting, such as urine marking or furniture scratching in cats. Other problems are exaggerated versions of normal behaviors that have been accentuated by indiscriminate breeding practices. A final group of behavior problems is inadvertently engineered by us. We often do not appreciate or understand the importance of environmental and social experiences on the development of behavior, or we interact inappropriately with our pets, sending incorrect signals of leadership and understanding. For example, a dog growls and snaps at a stranger. Its owner, in an attempt to calm the dog, pets the dog and speaks soothingly to it. The dog, however, interprets this petting and soothing as praise, thereby reinforcing its aggressive behavior. Fortunately, it is often not too late to intervene and rectify at least the majority of these problems. A little understanding goes an awfully long way.

To understand what behaviors to expect from a particular type of pet, what drives these behaviors, and how to re-direct them resolves many of the species-typical behavior problems. It is also helpful to attend to the pet's psychological and physical needs through attention to exercise, diet, and various environmental factors. Communication with the pet can be enhanced through modern non-confrontational training. Attention to species specific behavioral needs (such as a bloodhound's need to sniff or a sheep dog's need to herd) is a must. In addition, specific behavior modification practices can be of enormous value, in some cases augmented by targeted pharmacological therapies when genuine psychological problems are involved. Medical causes of behavior problems are becoming better understood and these problems must be diagnosed and treated appropriately if other strategies are to be successful.

The bottom line is that now, at last, something can be done to correct most behavior problems. A new breed of veterinary and non-veterinary specialist has emerged to help advance the science of animal behavior studies and to educate others in the art. A number of referral centers have opened up in private practice and in academia. The clinical services they provide can and do help in dealing with hard-to-treat behavior problems. No longer is there no place to turn. There are very reasonable alternatives to euthanasia that are likely to meet with success, whatever species is involved. It is quite foreseeable that within a few years the currently overwhelming dilemma of animal behavior management will come under control - and not a moment too soon. The cavalry has arrived!

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