Behavior may be the key to a pet’s long life, which is one reason a task force of veterinary experts commissioned by the American Animal Hospital Association got together to create the 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines. These comprehensive recommendations help veterinary professionals proactively address behavior concerns in their patients. The guidelines discuss signs of anxiety in dogs and cats, socialization and behavior development in dogs, and offer solutions for behavior problems, such as cat-to-cat aggression and separation anxiety in dogs.
Misinformation about pet behavior is rampant. Whether a pet owner is getting his or her information from the Internet or a local pet store sales clerk, separating fact from fiction in pet behavior information can be difficult. The new AAHA guidelines offer a key message for pet owners, though: Anytime there’s a change in your pet’s behavior, contact your veterinarian, because the explanation may—in part—be medical.
Behavioral problems affect dogs and cats more than any other condition and can lead to death for a pet. When a cat urinates outside the litter box once too often, for example, the owner may relinquish the pet to a shelter. With a history of behavior issues, that cat’s fate is uncertain and may end with euthanasia. Similarly, if a dog bites a child, euthanasia could be the consequence. Behavior problems can usually be avoided, or at least treated, before reaching a critical point.
Understanding your pet’s behavior
The AAHA guidelines recommend that all veterinary visits include a behavioral assessment. During the veterinary visit, some pet owners will proactively talk about a pet’s “bad behavior,” and offer information regarding changes in behavior. However, many people are embarrassed or have feelings of guilt, which may make them reluctant to admit how a pet is behaving. Additionally, sometimes a pet owner may not understand what constitutes “normal” behavior based on the age of his or her pet.
Normal patterns of behavior change and are predictable as the brain matures, whereas atypical changes may signal the development of a behavioral problem.
Getting off on the right paw can make an enormous difference for cats and dogs. In fact, AAHA’s guidelines strongly endorse puppy and kitten socialization classes, indicating there is no medical reason to delay puppy and kitten classes or social exposure until the vaccination series is completed, as long as exposure to sick animals is prohibited, basic hygiene is practiced, and diets are high quality. The guidelines identify a lack of socialization to be a greater risk than the risk associated with being unvaccinated in public.
However, the guidelines suggest there are two risks associated with the notion of socialization.
“First, the assumption that social exposure should occur only during a certain period is incorrect,” the guidelines state. “There is extensive individual variation in development. Allowing dogs and cats the opportunity to develop at their own rate is important.”
The guidelines also suggest that forcing social exposure can actually damage a developing dog.
According to the guidelines, “The development of fear during sensitive periods is aggravated by forced social exposure. Overexposure can make fearful dogs worse, creating a behavioral emergency.”
Using proper training techniques
The AAHA guidelines oppose aversive training techniques, such as prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls (forcibly rolling a pet on his or her back), electronic shock collars, entrapment, and physically punishing a pet. The guidelines note that aversive training techniques can harm or even destroy an animal’s trust in his or her owner, negatively impact the pet’s problem-solving ability, and cause increased anxiety in the animal. Aversive techniques are especially a concern if pets are already fearful or aggressive, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous.
According to the AAHA guidelines, the only acceptable training techniques are non-aversive, positive techniques that rely on the identification of, and reward for, desirable behaviors. Positive reinforcement is the most humane and effective approach.
For many veterinary practices, the veterinarian may oversee dealing with a behavior issue as a sort of “quarterback.” Depending on the problem, you might work with a veterinary technician (who may be a specialist in behavior from the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians) or possibly be referred to a boarded veterinary behaviorist for difficult problems. Under the guidelines, a veterinarian may also refer you to a qualified trainer. Find more suggestions on qualified professionals to help train your animal on the AAHA website.