For FDA Recall Information:

Understanding Animal Behavior




     It is sometimes frustrating to try to teach any animal to change a behavioral pattern.  Male dogs normally want to urinate on upright objects, cats tend to be territorial and fight with other cats within their territory.  Horses rear up when in pain; parrots make noise to get attention.  There are some problems that may be more difficult to change, such as the natural instinct of a dog or cat to chase chickens.  A lot of behavioral actions are hereditary, yet most of these actions can be changed if you slowly provide a stimulus to encourage the animal to act differently.  The altering of behavioral habits takes time and patience.  You must be persistent in the treatment to achieve the desired result.  Each problem should be discussed individually with the veterinarian.  This information is only a general overview of why animals act the way they do.

     Animals do not have the power to reason; only people have this ability.  A male cat may kill its own young males if there is a limited amount of food or territory.  He doesn’t understand or care that these are his own offspring.  Taking a dog to a place where he urinated over 10 minutes ago does not make the animal know or remember he urinated there and he was wrong, even if you punished him for doing it earlier.  Animals only remember what they did within the last few minutes.  It is true that the dog knows he did something wrong, because he can sense that you are angry.  If you call an animal to you, then say Bad Dog or punish him for chewing up a shoe, he will only understand that by going to you he was then punished.  The result may be not to coming to you when again called.  By chasing the dog to discipline him, he may think that you are playing a game instead.  Should you grab a dog that recently escaped the yard, and drag the animal back over the fence, you are giving him the idea that it is painful to go BACK into the yard and it is ok to go over the fence.  You must catch him in the act of escaping to correct the situation.  Dogs cannot reason or have judgment decisions for what is best for them; they only think back to “what did I do last time that pleased my master” or what did I get away with without being punished.  Animals learn by ASSOCIATING pain or pleasure with the experience.  A cow that has been into a squeeze chute does not easily go in the second time if somebody has used a hot shot or had a dog biting at their heals (Do you blame them?).  To teach animals we give them rewards and praise for doing something good, or to immediately say NO if you catch them doing something wrong.  Animals rarely can understand sentences spoken to them, but they can sense the tone of your voice if you are pleased, angry, or sense that something is bothering you.  Animals associate command words, such as “sit”, with doing an action that pleases you.  Most animals want to please their masters.  Success is related to how well YOU communicate to them when teaching them new tricks or actions. 

     If the only interaction you have with a pet is to discipline them, they may do negative things to achieve attention.  You should always reward good behavior, even if it is only to say “good boy.”  Most pets literally live to receive your attention.

     With any habit it is easier to stop it in the earlier stages than to wait till later on before correcting the situation.  A puppy does not understand why he can chew on old shoes, but not on your new shoes.  A shoe is a shoe to him.  A kitten that attacks you while walking down the hall may seem cute, but do you want the same thing happening when she is full grown?  Puppies bite each other to experience play fighting.  They learn how hard they can bite before the other puppy cries out in pain.  They do not harm the other puppy because they stop biting when the other puppy cries out.  Allowing a puppy to bite you, and not saying no, only allows the dog to grow up thinking that “I can bite this hard and it is OK”.  To change any behavior you must first find out why the animal is doing this action or when and where does it occur.  Then it is easier for us to help you correct the problem.

     Sometimes we encounter an action that the animal does not like.  It may be a car ride, placing a bit into a horse’s mouth, holding a bird or just a common sound that bother some animals (i.e. a police siren).  For problems in travel, place the animal in the car and don’t go for a ride.  Reward them if they are good for a few minutes, and then leave the car.  The next day you can start the car, but don’t move it.  Then the 3rd day you can only drive 5?10 feet.  Daily work up to exposing the animal to this experience will help desensitize them.  Once you realize the animal is uncomfortable then stop the procedure and go back one step the next day.  With problems related to noise a tape recording on very low volume at first may be needed.  Some horses do not like to be haltered because every time they have been haltered or had a bit in their mouth a bad experience occurred (they had a “rough ride”).  You must slowly expose the animals to the same experience and allow them to associate pleasure.  Treats and food are the way to please most everyone’s pleasure center.  Feed the horse after he allows you to catch him without a struggle.  If the horse does allow you to catch him then don’t feed him right away.  Feed him later so he does not associate “getting away with it”.  You need to start at a very low level of interaction, such as only allowing the horse to come near you to be fed.  The second step would be placing your hand on his skin where he does not turn and run, if only for a second.  Then gently pet him, finally allowing your arm around his neck.  If the animal associated a certain building, yard or stall with pain you can also slowly reintroduce them to this area.  Pets do not like the veterinary office because of the experiences they first received there.  Changing veterinarians does not always help; feel free to drop by with your pet for only a hello visit and a treat should this be occurring with your pet.

     It takes a lot of time and patience to correct a bad habit, or to desensitize an animal to something that they don’t like.  At times there are other methods available for correcting the problem.  With psychological problems for cats or dogs, they may become destructive or have elimination problems.  These psychological problems are sometimes best treated with drugs, which may require only a temporary usage.  Hopefully the problem will not reoccurring after stopping the behavioral drugs.  Obedience schooling helps dogs that are not easily controlled by their owners.  Most cats do not like to be immersed in water for bathing, but will allow a sponge bath to occur.  If you are having a problem changing their behavior, please call us.


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic




Behavior And Understanding The Basics


     Half of behavior is hereditary and half is environmental.  We have all seen the litter of offspring raised in exactly the same way, yet individuals are totally opposite when they grow up.  Some animals are shy while others may be aggressive.  Most fear biter dogs are born that way, and they were not always abused as a pup.  It is true these shy dogs maybe did not come and respond to commands, and thus they were improperly handled by a non-gentle, non-understanding person, yet they were shy to begin with.  If you watch any child play as an infant, you can almost see who will thrive in engineering or the arts.  Animals are no different. 

     Instinct is essentially the same terminology as hereditary.  If you want a dog that is a good hunter, then seek out the parents who are good at the task you wish the dog to perform.  The dogs which sniff out bombs have been screened from hundreds of other dogs, and the astute handlers have noticed this special dog is aware of special smells.  A dog that searches for human bodies usually are not be able to be taught to smell for dynamite, etc.  As with an athlete the handler finds that individual and them trains the animal to excel in the task.

     Learned behavior cannot always be easily distinguished from instinct.  If a kitten is not taught to hunt by 6 -8 weeks of age by its mothers, then it probably never will be a good mouser.  This can be an advantage.  If you like to feed birds then purchase a cat from a cattery or pet store.  If an animal is not socialized by a specific age, it will become difficult to make them a good companion.  Feral cats and wild horses are such examples, although with gentle training some will become less aggressive towards being handled by humans.  Yet if you take a baby raccoon most will instinctively become aggressive when handled when it matures, even if raised by humans.

     Many factors can influence learning and behavior.  Inadequate nutrition at an early age has shown to decrease learning in both humans and animals.  Cognitively sluggish is such a term to use for kittens which were undernourished.


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic




     If you want some more background information on behavior then back up to Client Education Links for more information.  It should be noted that we have over a hundred such handouts for specific problems in various species of animals; diagnosing and treating using only a handout or the Internet has its problems.