Shelley Smith's two French bulldogs -- Clinton, 4, and Shelby, 3 -- have grown up together, but it doesn't take much for them to tangle. "They'll battle over food, or my attention, and sometimes it gets physical," says Smith, who lives in Big Spring, TX. "We've had our share of vet visits where one or both of them need stitches."
Thankfully, the bulldogs' behavior has gotten better over the last couple years due to the treatment plan crafted by veterinary behaviorist Valarie V. Tynes, DVM.
Tynes put both dogs on the anti-anxiety medication trazodone, and Clinton was also put on an antidepressant as well as another drug sometimes used to treat anxiety, Neurontin. Once both animals had calmed down enough, Tynes worked with Smith to craft a behavior plan.
"Some of it was about training me," Smith says. "For example, if Clinton starts growling at Shelby while he's on my lap, I remove myself." But learning specific strategies, such as sending both dogs to their kennels for "time-outs" when they get overexcited, has really helped.
Many pets, like Smith's, have behavior problems that can make life more difficult for both themselves and their owners. A 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, for example, surveyed almost 14,000 dog owners. It found that over 70% reported behavior issues in their pets, like noise sensitivity, fearfulness, separation anxiety, and aggression.
"Dogs and cats don't just wake up one morning and decide to make their owners' lives miserable," says Leslie Sinn, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in Hamilton, VA. "If you see changes in their behavior, there's most likely something that's making them stressed or fearful. Animals can't use words, so their behavior becomes a form of communication."
The first step, she says, is to take them to your vet to rule out a medical issue that could be causing or contributing to the behavior. If you've done that and the problem remains, then it's time to seek out a certified pet behavior specialist.
Here are some issues they can help with:
This is the most common and serious behavior problem in dogs, according to the ASPCA. It's also the No. 1 reason pet owners seek professional help from an animal behaviorist.
There are several reasons why a pet might be aggressive. For instance, they might feel they are protecting their owners, their home, or their toys. They might be fearful. They might even have decided they're higher up on the social food chain than other human family members.
Dogs who are aggressive may become still and rigid. They might move quickly toward another person or animal. They could growl, show their teeth, or snarl. They might nip or bite.
Signs of aggression in cats include:
- Dilated pupil
- Ears flattened backward on the head
- Erect tail
- Arched back
If you notice aggressive behavior in your pet, it's important to seek out professional help to identify triggers and come up with solutions. "Some of the problem is pet owners expecting more of their pets than is appropriate," Tynes says.
If your dog is constantly getting into fights at doggie day care, for example, it may be that they simply find it stressful to be in a busy environment, she says.
"We can work with the dog, but we also need to work with their owner to make sure they have realistic expectations," Tynes says. A dog who is aggressive to other dogs, or to strangers, may simply need to be in a well-controlled environment like a fenced-in yard. More concerning are dogs who bite without warning and are unpredictably aggressive.
If your well-trained dog has accidents or chews up furniture when you are away, they may simply be anxious about being alone. Shelter dogs are more likely to experience this condition than dogs who have lived with their family since puppyhood. When dogs with separation anxiety are left alone, they may:
- Pee and poop in the house
- Bark and howl
- Chew, dig, and otherwise damage items
- Pace excessively
Mild cases of separation anxiety can be treated at home, often by giving your dog a great treat, like a Kong stuffed with peanut butter, whenever you leave the house. But if your pet is actually hurting themselves when you're gone or can't be consoled by a treat, then it's time to see an animal behaviorist.
The best treatment is to take short, timed departures so your dog gets used to your leaving and returning, says Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, professor emeritus of behavioral medicine at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, NY. It also helps not to make a big deal when you leave or return. Sometimes, pets also need anti-anxiety medications while doing this treatment.
Litter Box Troubles
Litter box pickiness. "Cats are very particular. They like their toilet area to be someplace private and quiet, and they like it to be clean," Sinn says. If you don't clean their litter box enough, it's too small or deep, or they have to share it with other cats, they may decide to do their business elsewhere -- like on your carpet.
Negative associations. If your cat had a UTI that made it hurt to pee, she may associate her litter box with the experience and will avoid it as a result.
Household stress. Moving or adding new pets or family members can make your cat anxious.
If your cat doesn't respond to changes like moving her little box, changing her cat litter, or making it less deep, then you may want to consult with an animal behaviorist. They can help pinpoint the cause and come up with a retraining plan, Sinn says.
Certifications for Animal Behaviorists
If your pet has a serious enough behavior problem that they could hurt themselves or others, then you need to see a professional animal behavior therapist, Houpt says. While some pet trainers claim to be pet behaviorists, you need special certification to qualify. There are two main kinds of certification to look for:
Certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB). They have a graduate degree in animal behavior. They are trained to spot abnormal pet behavior and know techniques to help change it. You can find one through the Animal Behavior Society.
Board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB). These are veterinarians with additional training in animal behavior. They are certified through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Unlike CAABs, they can also prescribe medication. You can find one at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.