Does Your Pet Need Therapy?

From the WebMD Archives

If you think your dog or cat has some bad habits, you’re not alone. “Ten to 15 percent of owners say that they have pet behavior issues,” says certified applied animal behaviorist Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, science adviser to the ASPCA.

But does your animal need therapy? Yes, if their behavior puts them or others in danger.

“Any time the safety or well-being of either the pet or human is in question, a professional should be brought in to determine the best course of action,” says certified dog behavior consultant Michael Shikashio. “It doesn't have to be as severe as aggression. An animal exhibiting 'quirky' behavior like excessive tail-chasing [could] be suffering from underlying issues.”

The first step is seeing your veterinarian. There may be an underlying medical issue that needs to be treated. If you decide to meet with a certified pet behavior professional, be prepared to really work with your animal to get the problem corrected.

“A pet owner shouldn't expect a quick fix,” Shikashio says.

These are some of the behavior issues common in cats and dogs:


There are several reasons why a pet may become aggressive: They may be protective of their home or family; possessive of their food, bed or toys; fearful; or feel a need to be dominant.

In dogs, signs of aggression include growling, showing the teeth, charging, barking, snarling, snapping, nipping, and biting.

Going for a walk in the neighborhood provides so much stimulation in some dogs that it makes them feel more alert and aggressive. These are dogs that may benefit from "growl" classes, or reactive dog classes.

In these sessions, behaviorists put together two to four dogs in a controlled situation, to teach them social skills, Zawistowski says. The dogs and their owners are under strict supervision and given plenty of space. Each dog is slowly trained to be able to get closer to the other dogs without showing signs of aggression. These classes can help your pooch become more comfortable whenever other dogs or people are around. This will lead to more enjoyable walks for everyone.


An aggressive cat can bite and scratch. They may hiss, growl, howl, stare, flatten their ears, swish their tail or expose their teeth or claws.

Some cats don't like to be petted -- or petted for long periods of time. They may let you know by batting your hand away with a claw. Cats are territorial and may not want certain people or animals in their areas. Mother cats may act aggressively if they think their kittens are threatened. Other cats practice "redirected aggression" -- they may see another cat through a window, and scratch the people or animals that they can reach. Cats that are in pain, for any reason, can be aggressive.

If your cat is showing aggression and you can’t figure out why, you should have them checked out by your vet to see if something physical may be causing the behavior. If pain is ruled out, a behaviorist who works with cats may be able to help.


Loud noises, being left alone, or even a change in routine can upset your pet.

Animals can show anxiety in several ways. A dog may pace and pant and whine. A cat may hide or meow. Both can also be destructive: relieving themselves where they shouldn’t, and destroying things around the house. Some pets lick themselves so compulsively that their fur comes off and their skin is raw.

Is your dog bored?

“Dogs are social animals,” Zawistowski says. If you live alone and work long hours, your absence could upset your dog.

“Animals who don't have their mental and physical enrichment needs met can display undesirable behaviors,” Shikashio says.

If your dog is just bored, increasing walks and spending more time with them may help. But if they are truly afraid when you aren’t home, you may need to consult with a behaviorist.

Is your cat bothered?

“Typical cat behavior issues can include litter box problems and clawing at personal belongings,” Shikashio says.

A cat may become upset if you've moved the litter box, changed the litter, or started dating someone new.


Once the root of the problem is discovered, it's easier to address.

“If you have a very high-anxiety dog or cat, it's difficult to do behavior modification without [the help of] prescription anxiety medications used to relax the animals,” Zawistowski says. The medication can help get the animals comfortable with the behavior changes, and they can later be weaned off, he says.

To find an animal behavior consultant in your area, see the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants ( or American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on February 24, 2014



Michael Shikashio, certified dog behavior consultant, Connecticut; president, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist, New York; science adviser, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants: “Find an Animal Behavior Consultant.”

American College of Veterinary Behaviorists: “Member Directory.”

© 2014 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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