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  • Writer's pictureColleen O'Brien, DVM, CVA

Dealing with Common Pet Behavior Problems

Behavior and proper manners in pets encompass everything from house breaking, to how strangers are greeted, to how enjoyable a vet visit is. Training for behavior can start as soon as you get your pet. Contrary to what they say, you can teach old dogs new tricks!

Intervention for undesirable behaviors should start as early as possible so they do not become an ingrained habit. Sometimes, this requires working with a reputable trainer, and/or a veterinary behaviorist, which we will talk more about later. Below is a brief outline of some behavior issues that I come across regularly and what you, as a pet owner, can do.


Aggression exhibits itself in a number of circumstances and and ways. For instance, if an animal is hiding under a chair and you try to pull it out and it bites or scratches you, this is out of fear and/or defense. Other times, aggression is territorial, such as when an animal has its favorite toy. These two instances are generally fairly manageable on the human end: You should create an environment that does not incite fear, and remove objects of high value from the environment.

Unfortunately, not all aggression is as clear cut as those examples. Did your pet attack the other one as the instigator, or was it responding to a previously lesser insult that you missed? Did your pet think the person entering the house was an intruder and not a guest?

When dealing with any type of aggression, it is better to take a proactive approach. A growl is a warning and you should take it as such. Do not wait for a growl to turn to a bite. Take the warning, and call your veterinarian and discuss the details of your individual scenario.

Mismatched Room Mates

So you got a new pet! And your current pet isn't happy. While not ideal, it can be expected. You didn't consult them on their new housemate, did you? It’s important to remember that pets will take time to adjust to a new housemate, and they may never be best friends.

Ideally, before you introduce a new animal, you should do a trial run with a friend's pet to make sure there is no obvious conflict. If this goes well, I personally like a slow introduction. Make sure all pets have their safe space (a cat tree, a separate room) where they can get away from their new housemate and discourage the new housemate from following. The pet should then be rewarded for not interacting (or harassing) the other pet and for paying attention to you.

Inappropriate Elimination

This tends to be seen in cats more than dogs. While many assume that a cat urinating outside the litter box has a urinary tract infection, it is often sterile cystitis. This means that the bladder is inflamed with no infection. This is generally brought on by stress (new people in the house, changes in the litter, not enough litter boxes, new animals, etc.). If a cat, particularly a male cat, gets a bad case of cystitis, they can actually block and not be able to urinate, which is a medical emergency that requires veterinary attention.

It is important to get a detailed history to rule out stress as a cause vs. a medical issue such as urinary tract infections, diabetes, or kidney disease. This is where having a full work up with your vet (blood work and a urinalysis) is also important.

Separation Anxiety

This is a tough one to deal with. Part of this behavior is a human factor: teach your pet that they will not always be with you.

If you insist on bringing your pet everywhere, and then one day you can't, it is extremely confusing for your pet. If you have already conditioned your pet, some things you can do is make sure they are tired out before you leave them (long walk), crate train them, give them a food puzzle, and play some calming music for them. It is also important not to make a big show out of coming or going from the house as your pet will pick up on the added energy. For some this is enough, other pets will need medical (eastern or western) intervention as well.

Final Thoughts

For all of these behavior issues, the most effective way to treat them is to prevent them. Start with good, consistent training, and maintain a calm environment for your pet. If you do notice a problem or significant change, don't ignore it, contact your veterinarian. Your vet may be able to advise you on some training tips or medications but if the problem is severe enough, such as cases of aggression, they may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist is someone who dedicated 12 years of their life studying animals, instead of the usual 8, and focused on behavior for 4 of those years. This is not a random person who took an online course and calls themselves a behaviorist, this is the real deal. To find a veterinary behaviorist, visit:


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